This Immigrant Woman Just Became The First Deafblind Person To Graduate From Harvard Law School
Living with disabilities can be difficult but oftentimes the greatest difficulty comes from the limitations put on disabled people by their abled counterparts. Often, being disabled just means finding another way to do things; it doesn’t mean not being able to do these things at all. Disabled people don’t need to meet the abled world’s expectations because they are able to meet the world with their own.
This is something that disability lawyer Haben Girma wants everyone to understand about disability. Born deaf and blind, Girma has spent her life breaking boundaries, including becoming the first DeafBlind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.
Now, the advocate is sharing her amazing journey in the pages of a brand new book.
Besides graduating from Harvard in 2013, the advocate has scaled glaciers, surfed the gnarliest of waves and met with president Barack Obama. All these accomplishments would be impressive for an abled bodied person but Girma’s disability adds an extra layer to this story. The expectation is that — because she is DeafBlind — these achievements should be impossible.
However, those limitations put on her because of her disability are not something she acknowledges. This is what she writes about in her newly released memoir, “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.” The book is now available in physical form and in an accessible audiobook.
“I hope people can move away from seeing people with disabilities as incompetent,” Haben shared in an interview with PEOPLE. “If we remove barriers, we can have great inclusion.”
It’s because of these imposed barriers and limitations that Girma dislikes the notion of being called “inspiring.”
In “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law,” the lawyer writes about her grievances with this concept. Too often, she says, inspiration is mistaken for pity. What she means by this is that her accomplishments should be appreciated because they are great, not because of her disability. The same could be said for any disabled person.
“Some people use it as a disguise for pity,” she writes. “They’ll say, ‘You’re so inspiring,’ but in their mind, they’re thinking, ‘Thank God I don’t have your problems.’ ”
Often, “inspiration porn” is spread across social media and it helps to explain why Girma dislikes being labeled as inspirational.
In these posts, disabled people are usually shown doing average things. For example, when a child first walks with its prosthesis or a disabled person participates in a sport. What is supposed to make it remarkable is the person’s disability.
However, if you take the disability away and view the circumstance with an able-bodied person instead, there is no longer the element of “inspiration.” Disabled people like Girma don’t want to be seen as an inspiration solely because of their disability. They want to be acknowledged for their actual abilities, just like anyone else does.
It’s with this in mind that Girma travels the world speaking about disability rights.
Accessibility is the main focus that the advocate is working on right now. Girma herself uses a guide dog named Mylo to access the world around her. In order to communicate, the lawyer uses a dual keyboard system she devised to convert type to Braille text. Finding solutions for everyday accessibility is something that all disabled people have to do and that is what Girma wants to make easier and more understood.
Internet accessibility has especially gained Girma’s attention and advocacy. In 2014, the lawyer helped to win a landmark case against a site that failed to provide access to blind readers. It is through this lawsuit that other internet accessibility cases will be able to site precedent in the future, making the world more accessible to those with visual disabilities.
“People with disabilities already face so many barriers in the physical world,” she explained to PEOPLE. “There’s no reason to have barriers in the digital world when we have the power to convert those 1s and 0s into engaging applications that everyone can use.”
Ultimately, it’s Girma’s goal that disabled people are able to live their lives in ways that are as fulfilling and accessible as possible.
“My dream world is a place where people with all types of disabilities are included,” Girma confessed to PEOPLE. “There is so much work to be done.”
With the help of advocates like Girma, disabled people will be able to live on their own terms in a world that is not limited by what others think they are able to do. That’s the kind of world we should all reach for.