It Changed My Life: The deaf-blind lawyer fighting for the disabled

Harvard Law School's first deaf-blind graduate says disability is an opportunity for innovation

Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate from Harvard Law School, is sitting in the living room of the US ambassador's residence in Singapore, giving me a crash course in communication.

Nervous about committing a social faux pas, I'd used "hearing and vision-impaired" to describe her disabilities.

The disability rights lawyer says: "Hearing and vision-impaired focus on loss and limitations. They are also longer words. Blind is shorter and to the point, deaf is shorter and to the point. They also don't have the stigmatising word: impairment. I would prefer deaf-blind."

But she adds that the disabled community is big and diverse.

"So, there are blind people who prefer to be called legally blind or low vision or partially sighted. There's no right or wrong way. My choice is be honest and direct and use the easiest word," the 30-year-old adds.

Miss Girma is talking to me with the help of an interpreter who uses a keyboard to type my questions which are then transmitted to a Braille device on her lap.

She responds by speaking clearly, in full sentences pregnant with wit and humour.

"There are different types of hearing loss," she explains. "My type is rare. I have low frequency loss and high frequency hearing. So I trained myself to speak in a higher voice, which allows me to hear some of my speech sounds.

"Throughout my life, teachers have been helping me so that I pronounce words correctly. I've also had public speaking courses. All of these things contribute to what you are hearing right now," says Miss Girma, who was in Singapore recently to speak at an event organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women.

Poised and articulate, the accomplished young woman - named by former US president Barack Obama as a White House Champion of Change a few years ago - is the third of four children of a lab technician father and a nursing aide mother.

Her mother, a refugee from Eritrea, grew up under the shadow of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War and fled by foot to Sudan in 1983 when she was 16. Her father is an Ethiopian living in California.

Miss Girma grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.

"I was lucky. The Bay Area is the heart of the disability rights movement and there were lots of activists advocating for greater change," she says, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life.

"By the time I was born, all these changes were in place. There were curb cuts on the streets which make it easier for wheelchairs to get on and off the sidewalk. By the way, physical access is good in a lot of the buildings here in Singapore, including MRT stations," says Miss Girma, whose elder brother is also deaf-blind.

She attended mainstream public schools in Oakland.

SEIZING THE MOMENT

Always optimistic but not always practical. I wanted to travel, to try everything and to experience as much as possible.

MISS HABEN GIRMA, on living life to the fullest.

"I went to class with non-disabled students but for an hour each day, I attended a blindness programme where they taught us Braille and technology like how to travel around the Bay area by myself.

"Once a year, they would take us skiing or river rafting. The idea is that if you could take a blind kid skiing or river rafting, you are teaching them that they could do anything," says Miss Girma, who is also an avid advocate for assistive technology for the disabled.

School was easy. What was hard were naysayers telling her parents that she was not going to achieve much in life. "They would say: 'Oh your poor daughter. She is not going to do anything. She is never going to college, get a job or get married.' Society creates these barriers. And my parents had to resist these negative expectations."

Her parents had faith that she would do well and told her to work and study hard. She also had a lot of support at school.

"I've been successful because there were also people who said: 'Yes, you can.' They'd made science accessible and gym class accessible," says Miss Girma, who went to Mali to help build a school when she was in high school.

Not that she didn't have her share of insecurities.

 

"Growing up, you'd get all these messages on books, TV and from the community that your life didn't matter. I wanted to matter, so I'd try to hide my disabilities."

She wouldn't read a book in public because Braille books would betray the fact that she was blind.

"But doing that meant I had no access to books. So I learnt to resist societal expectations... I embraced my insecurities a little bit in high school, a little more in college and fully in law school."

Today, she has her own definition of disability: disability means the opportunity for innovation.

She has always been an adventurous soul.

"Always optimistic but not always practical," she says, with a smile. "I wanted to travel, to try everything and to experience as much as possible."

With a grin, she recalls wanting to be a cowgirl when she was seven.

But until two years ago, she was always saddled with riding instructors who would hold the horse and not let her gallop, something she badly wanted to do.

"Two years ago, I had an instructor who said: 'Of course you can gallop.' And she let go of the horse and let me have full control," says Miss Girma, who also loves to surf and do the salsa.

Incidentally, she stresses, deaf and blind people can be cowgirls. "You can learn to ride a horse using your voice and physical communication. There are blind people working on farms. It's absolutely possible."

Like her parents told her to, Miss Girma worked and studied hard. She was valedictorian of her high school and had glowing references from her teachers.

But working hard was not enough to get rid of barriers.

Although she wanted to study mathematics and computer science at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, she came up against professors who were less than helpful.

"I asked questions and one professor told me to ask someone else. It was frustrating."

Rather than expend effort and energy constantly arguing with uncooperative professors, she decided to switch to anthropology and sociology where the lecturers and tutors were more welcoming.

"I picked my battles. It was a personal choice. I asked myself how important it was to major in computer science and maths and I decided it wasn't that important," she says.

Mind you, she's no pushover.

In a speech she gave at the Perkins School For The Blind some years ago, she spoke of how she requested her school cafeteria to e-mail her the menu each day. She did not want to settle for whatever was dished out on her plate.

But the manager didn't keep to the bargain, e-mailing her only occasionally. When she complained, he told her the cafe was busy and she should be appreciative. "I explained that Title III of the ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. If the cafeteria refused to do this, I would sue."

That prompted not only an apology but also the dutiful daily dispatch of the menu.

Looking for a job after graduating proved just as frustrating. Her impressive resume often led to calls for interviews but landing a job was a different matter because firms couldn't get past her disabilities.

Putting on her advocate's hat, she says: "In the United States, 70 per cent of blind people are unemployed. And in Singapore, only 5 per cent of disabled people have employment. So a lot of hardworking, talented and brilliant people are not getting employed because employers put up barriers. We need employers all over the world to remove barriers."

Miss Girma decided she had to do something different to get a job.

"Just getting good grades is not enough. I learnt about disability rights advocates, people who use the law to create change. And I decided to become one of them so that I can minimise discrimination against people with disabilities," she says.

That's how she ended up at Harvard Law School.

Her eyes widen with mock disbelief and she lets out a loud laugh when I ask, without thinking, if law school was "love at first sight".

"What's your excuse?" she says chidingly.

Sheepishly, I tell her she is so articulate and engaging I forget she's deaf and blind.

Law school, she says, was not always a walk in the park. Studying contracts and legislation could be tedious and it took a while before she got to disability rights.

But her classmates were amazing. Ditto the school, which gave her unstinting support. "Harvard wanted me there and said: 'Let's find a way to make this work'."

Among other things, the school provided her with materials in digitised and Braille formats, voice transliterators who narrated discussions which were fed into her earphones in class and even interpreters at networking events.

Her exam scripts were in Braille and her scripts, typed out on a computer, were graded anonymously.

"They didn't know which was mine. Everything was very fair."

She did well enough to earn a Skadden Fellowship, which paid her two years' salary to do public service work.

It helped to cover her work at a non-profit law firm, Disability Rights Advocates, which files suits against employers who violate the ADA and other civil rights Acts.

She spent 21/2 years at the firm and worked on several cases. A memorable triumph was representing the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) against digital library company Scribd in 2015.

"People paid about US$9 to get unlimited access to their library but blind individuals who wanted to read books hit a wall. It was not programmed for accessibility. Scribd said the ADA did not apply to an online business," says Miss Girma, adding that Scribd eventually settled and agreed to work with NFB to make its website more inclusive.

The lawyer has since moved on to training and speaking.

"I do presentations for companies and organisations that want to choose inclusion. It's better to choose inclusion rather than wait to be sued. By making your business accessible and inclusive, you also reach more people," she says, adding that there are 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world. Collectively, they make up a market worth US$8 trillion ($10.88 trillion).

In addition to training, Miss Girma is also a speaker who has given talks all over the world. Her latest accomplishment? Authoring Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, which is due out in August.

"On the surface, it is about my life story. But the message is about inclusion and what we can do to remove barriers out there."

Some people, she says, might dismiss her story as exceptional.

"They will say: 'She's just super. Most won't be able to do what she does'."

But that is not true, she insists.

"The reason I've been able to do everything I do is that there were teachers and employers who said: 'We believe in you and want you to contribute to our organisation and workplace.'

"My story is not the exception. There are lots of people with disabilities who are talented and brilliant. It's up to society to remove the barriers so that they can contribute."

Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.