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Memoir of Deafblind Attorney Captures National Attention

This autobiography by a millennial Helen Keller teems with grace and grit.” O Magazine
A profoundly important memoir.” The Times

Haben Girma BA ’10Haben Girma BA ’10A New York Times “New & Noteworthy” pick and an O Magazine “Book of the Month” selection

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The kudos keep rolling in for Haben: the Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law (Twelve/Hachette, 2019), the moving life story of attorney and disability advocate Haben Girma BA ’10. With wit and insight, she takes readers along on her journey from isolation to empowerment.

Haben’s colorful stories delight readers: spending summers with relatives in the Eritrean city of Asmara, facing down a raging bull she could not see, learning salsa dancing, paddle boarding in Hawai‘i, and climbing icebergs in Alaska.

Haben is a passionate advocate for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Barack Obama named her a White House Champion of Change in 2013. She’s also been honored with the Helen Keller Achievement Award and a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list. In 2016, she was named Lewis & Clark’s Outstanding Young Alumna.

One of her most recent projects is a short film to spotlight the need for fully accessible autonomous vehicles. “I believe disability is an opportunity for innovation,” she says. “We should move toward a more inclusive world, one in which it’s no longer a big deal for a deafblind person to go to law school—or achieve any dream.”

Haben took a brief break from her national book tour to talk with the Chronicle.

Q: How did the idea for the book materialize?

A: As a disability advocate, I’m constantly asking myself, “What else can I do to end ableism?” Ableism is the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to the nondisabled, and it touches every aspect of our society. The stories in this book teach people to identify ableism, address it, and work toward removing it from our world.

Q: How did you decide which stories to include?

A: If a story advanced the reader’s understanding of the complex ways in which ableism creates barriers, I included it. One of my favorite chapters is about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s a simple, ordinary activity that shouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But then ableism strolls into the kitchen, and things suddenly get sticky.

Q: How did you approach the writing process?

A: Since I travel frequently for work, I gave myself the flexibility to write when my schedule allowed. Some weeks I wrote daily, other weeks I wrote nothing at all.

Q: How did your L&C experience prepare you for advocacy work?

A: After several frustrating months of limited access to food service, I started pursuing my rights under the ADA, and Bon Appétit finally made their menus accessible.

This experience taught me that the ADA’s promise of equal opportunity for people with disabilities depends on enforcement. Inclusion happens when we take active steps to remove barriers. Sometimes reframing a barrier as a civil rights issue is enough to get it removed.

Q: In what other ways was L&C a formative experience?

A: The team in Student Support Services was fantastic! They worked with my professors to ensure I had access in all my classes, from computer science to theatre.

Q: What is the book’s take-away message?

A: Inclusion is a choice. We all face the choice to tolerate oppression or advocate for justice.

Q: You were on the Today show in August. What was that like?

A: The thrill of speaking on the Today show will stay with me for years and years! We spent weeks preparing, and we spent several hours at Harvard Law School filming scenes they aired during the segment. Sitting on that couch on stage with my braille computer on my lap and my dog by my feet, I managed to enjoy the conversation and tune out all the cameras.

Q: How is the book tour shaping up?

A: I recently completed readings in San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle. Rather than holding a traditional reading, I have conversations on stage with interviewers and audience members. I always look forward to meeting everyone!

Q: What’s your current career direction?

A: Disability touches every part of our lives. In 2016, I started my own business of disability rights consulting, writing, and public speaking. I’ve been involved with a variety of projects, from helping schools become more accessible to advising on the accessibility of travel apps.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: There are still so many barriers facing people with disabilities. I plan to continue advocating for greater accessibility through consulting, speaking, and writing.

—Interview by Pattie Pace

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