Advocating for Accessible Technology

Haben Girma BA ’10

Haben Girma BA ’10

Last July, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Haben Girma introduced President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at a White House ceremony. With her characteristic charm, she shared a personal story:

“In 2010, I entered Harvard Law School as its first deaf-blind student,” she said. “Harvard didn’t know exactly how a deaf-blind student would succeed, and honestly, I didn’t know how I would survive Harvard. Without having all the answers, we pioneered our way using assistive technology and high expectations.”

That wasn’t Haben’s first trip to Washington as a disability rights advocate; in 2013, she was honored as a White House Champion of Change. She has also discussed accessibility and advocacy issues at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, and in a TEDx talk in Baltimore, Maryland. Recently, the BBC honored her as an unsung hero in its Women of Africa series for her work to dismantle digital barriers for people with disabilities around the world.

Haben’s journey began in 1988, when she was born deaf-blind in Oakland, California. Unlike her older brother, who was also born deaf-blind but in the African country of Eritrea, she was guaranteed an education by federal law. Haben was educated alongside her public school peers. She learned Braille, and, with a very slight amount of high-frequency hearing, she learned to speak. Her education took off.

By the time she applied to Lewis & Clark, her drive and determination clearly set her apart. She received a full four-year Barbara Hirschi Neely Scholarship, the highest merit award offered to select first-year students.

Student Support Services helped her navigate the maze of information needed to excel academically. Richard Peck, her advisor in international affairs, offered guidance. And Deborah Heath and Linda Angst, her mentors in the sociology and anthropology department, provided inspiration. She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in sociology/anthropology.

“Ultimately, we’re all social beings,” she says. “Understanding people’s stories and motivations makes me a better lawyer.”

Initially, the most challenging part of Haben’s college experience was mealtime at Bon Appétit. She couldn’t see the menu and couldn’t hear it being read to her. Eventually, after requesting a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA, she began receiving menus via email three times a day. Haben accessed the information in digital Braille through a screen reader.

“I can remember how happy I was knowing when chocolate cake was on the menu,” she says. “That small but important victory convinced me to become a public service lawyer.”

Before heading to Harvard, Haben reached out to lawyers in the deaf and blind communities for advice: What alternative communication techniques worked in law school? What’s the best way to get textbooks and conduct online research? Their advice was invaluable.

In the two years since she earned her law degree, Haben has found her stride working as a lawyer with Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit in Berkeley, California. It provides free legal representation to people with disabilities whose civil rights have been violated. Haben’s current work focuses on increasing access to technology for people with disabilities and ending what she calls their “information famine.”

“I’m particularly proud of a recent groundbreaking settlement we reached with Scribd, a digital library and social publishing giant based in San Francisco,” she says. After the court ruled that the ADA covers Internet-based businesses, Scribd agreed to make its digital content and website compatible with screen-access software for the blind. That software allows the content of websites, applications, and documents to be read aloud or displayed in Braille on a connected device.

When she’s not working, Haben loves the thrill of tandem surfing and connecting with people through dance, including a semester as a member of Harvard’s Ballroom Dance Society. She learned both skills through tactile and kinesthetic cues, through the language of touch.

“Ultimately, my message is that people living with disabilities want to participate in the mainstream,” she says. “We should move toward a more inclusive world, one in which it’s no longer a big deal for a deaf-blind person to go to law school—or achieve any dream.”

—by Pattie Pace