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Haben Girma- Harvard Law’s First Deaf-Blind Graduate and her Passion for Advocacy

Haben Girma

For Haben Girma, life is golden and full of amazing opportunities and possibilities.

Eventhough she doesn’t get to see the sunrise or hear the chirping of the birds, Girma is strengthened by the beauty of her dreams and the joy of being able to help other differently abled people birth their dreams and achieve greatness in life.

Her story is one of courage, hope and dedication to the service of humanity. Girma was born in 1988, six years younger than her brother who was also born deaf and blind, but providence cleared her path quite early and presented her some of the opportunities that had been unavailable to her brother. Girma’s grandmother had made efforts to get her brother into some of the schools in Eritrea, but each time she was told that the schools didn’t have facilities to cater for children who were deaf and blind. There were schools for blind children and schools for the deaf. But no school had room for children who were deaf-blind.

But in Girma’s case, it was different. By the time she was born, her mother had journeyed from Eritrea to the United States as a refugee. In an interview with NPR, Girma talked about her mother’s two-week trek to Sudan, and how she was eventually aided by a Catholic resettlement agency to get to the United States

walking at night to try to avoid the different military groups fighting in that area. At one point she slept in a tree surrounded by hungry hyenas.”

In the United States, there were strong laws that ban discrimination based on disability and guarantees an education for children living with disabilities. And so this made it easier for the Eritrean princess to be given the same opportunity as other children to get a good education in public schools in Oakland . But then, she knew that for her to be able to compete successfully with them, she needed to put in more effort. And so she devoted an hour of her school time everyday to learn Braille.

Haben Girma

Creating a pathway for others

Girma had an interesting experience in college-being accepted by other students and also excelling in her studies. But she had a challenge, which would eventually turn things around for other students in her condition.

At first, in Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Girma accepted whatever she was given at the cafeteria even when she didn’t like it. Yet, she longed to be able to make her orders like other students, but she just didn’t have the opportunity.

And so at her request, the food service manager agreed to email the day’s menu to her, which she could print on a Braille reader. The mails didn’t come often; as the food service managers were always too busy.  Girma thought to protest, but each time, she felt a restraint when she remembered the state of her people in Eritrea but she couldn’t hold back longer when the leader in her spoke up.

I’d grown up hearing stories about the war in Eritrea, limited resources, people struggling to survive…It was hard for me to make a fuss about access to cafeteria menus. At the same time, I realized after months of not getting access that if I didn’t do anything, other students with disabilities would face a similar barrier.”

She talked to the cafeteria management about the unfair treatment she was given and also reminded them of their obligation to abide by the ADA law.

And the result?

…their attitude changed and they started providing me greater access to the menu,” she explains. “And the next year, when another blind student came to the school, that student was able to benefit.”

Isn’t this what constructive activism is about? To speak up and make a way for other people. This impressive achievement encouraged the young Eritrean and helped her see the importance of enforcing civil rights laws.


Girma graduated from the Harvard Law School in 2013, where she competed on the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team, before going on to work at Disability Rights Advocates, a California-based disability civil rights law firm. There, Girma honed her leadership and advocacy skills.

Today, the leading lady has gone round the world preaching the good news about technology and attitudes toward disability.

Many cultures, including Ethiopian culture, view disability as a curse on the family,” she explains. “Advocates around the world are working to change such attitudes, and I help as best I can.” She tells NPR


Girma’s resilience and forthrightness got her into the white house and in a conversation with the President of the United States who didn’t have any difficulty getting a feel of the young woman’s passion and mission as she speaks about the ability of technology to bridge the gap for people with disabilities. The president typed on a silver, wireless keyboard, while Girma read the message on a digital Braille device.

Her deaf-blind brother, Mussie Gebre also got an opportunity to rise above his challenges. He was taught to use Braille and he also learnt English and the American Sign Language.

He now travels around California, teaching people with disabilities how to use technology.

Girma and her brother have proved to the world that there is great strength in disability and that there’s no challenge strong enough to put down a determined mind.

Lovelyn Okafor
Lovelyn Okafor
Lovelyn Okafor is a Journalist/Writer, Poet, Lawyer and God-Lover. She enjoys a good read and sees everyday as an opportunity to live and enjoy her calling whilst working towards perfecting it. She believes that someday soon, Africa will reach her full potential as the light-bearer of the world. You can find her on Twitter: @lovelyn_o

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