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Deaf-blind Harvard-trained lawyer who made waves now rides them

20-Jan-2016

Eritrean American Haben Girma is used to pushing boundaries. She made waves as the first-ever deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School, and quickly joined Disability Rights Advocates after her graduation in 2013 to work for increased accessibility and acceptance for disabled Americans.

She was honored by the White House and gave a moving speech at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And now she’s riding waves in California.

“It’s symbolic of all the possibilities that are out there,” Girma said. “Success comes about through lots of failure and I’m not afraid to fall. I’m not afraid to get in the water, try something new, look silly for a little bit.” She took a lesson with coach Matt Allen of the Maui Surf Academy, and had to communicate with body language and physical cues because her normal communication technology doesn’t work in the water.

Born in the U.S. after her mother escaped Eritrea as a refugee, Girma grew up in California learning Braille. As technology got bigger and better, it began to “bridge the gap for people with disabilities,” she said when she met with President Obama one-on-one last year. His response? “I couldn’t type a hug.”

Girma graduated from Lewis & Clark College, magna cum laude, in 2010.

Girma, in an interview with WUNC in 2013, decided to go to law school for the same reason so many do: “A lot of my friends who were ahead of me in college — graduating seniors — were struggling to find work. So I realized i needed to further my education and a law degree would give me the flexbility to do a variety of things.”

She said that her limited vision and hearing allowed her to “develop strengths” in “analyzing and problem-solving.”

She said she used a “variety of accomodations.” Her textbooks and course materials in written format –thousands of pages that it takes to get through law school — were passed along to the disability service office at Harvard, which converted them into Braille using software called Duxbury.

In her spare time, she did rock climbing and kayaking. “I had to show myself because growing up [deaf and blind] there was a part of me that always wasn’t sure. Can I really rock-climb? Can I really go to college and get a job? There’s a social message,” she told her interviewer, “that says people with disabilities can’t achieve, can’t succeed. And sometimes we inadvertently internalize those messages. And growing up I was struggling not to internalize so I needed to convince myself and convince people.

“And now I need to do less of that.”

Indeed, after becoming a staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, she helped score a major legal victory in National Federation of the Blind v. Scribd, in which the U.S. District Court in Vermont held that the ADA applies to e-commerce.

President Obama met with disability rights advocates in July 2015 to celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When meeting lawyer and activist Haben Girma for the first time, Obama gave her a hug. (YouTube/The White House)


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