Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma

January 17, 2022

  • book
  • reflection

Haben Girma is a prominent disability rights advocate also recognized as the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. I first came to know about Haben Girma in 2021 at axe-con, a (free) virtual digital accessibility conference. As an aside, I highly recommend this conference for any individuals working in the digital experience space. Haben delivered the talk: Difference drives innovation & Disability Inclusion benefits all of us. This talk left a strong impression on me and so I was excited to come across her memoir at my local library.

Haben’s memoir encompasses several anecdotes from her life as a Deafblind woman starting from her childhood growing up with Eritriean immigrant parents in Oakland (Bay Area represent!), attending Lewis and Clark College where she has her first disability advocacy experience, navigating through Harvard Law School and finding alternate ways to communicate with classmates and friends, and finally her work as a lawyer on a profound web accessibility lawsuit.

This memoir was personally a very educational read. I became better acquainted with the following:

  • the lawsuit case against Scribd which set the precedence that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also applied to internet-based businesses. This was a prominent lawsuit where Scribd, an e-book subscription company, was sued for not making their site accessible for blind users. Scribd tried to argue that the ADA only applied to physical spaces and not digital spaces. Thankfully, the judge ruled against Scribd. This is an especially critical ruling in our era where everything has become digitalized and so many of our professional and personal lives revolve around the internet. The consequences of siding with Scribd would have been devastating. Today, we see so many tech companies focused on making their products more accessible.
  • organizations like The Seeing Eye and Louisiana Center for the Blind. The book touches on some of her initial encounters with Mylo who becomes her first Seeing Eye dog.
  • assistive technologies like the braille refreshable display and braille printer. Haben mentions that Lewis and Clark College had a braille printer that allowed her to access course materials and textbooks. This made me wonder about what services my own university provided (or lacked) to remove educational barriers for students with disabilities.
  • the concept of ableism. This book has helped me recognize and challenge my own ableist assumptions and ignorance.

Here were a few quotes from the book that stood out to me:

It’s a sighted, hearing classroom, in a sighted, hearing school, in a sighted, hearing society. They designed this environment for people who can see and hear. In this environment, I’m disabled. They place the burden on me to step out of my world and reach into theirs.

Technology has the potential to remove barriers, but developers keep designing inaccessible digital services.

Anyways, I don’t want to spoil this book. It’s a relatively short read and I would highly recommend this book to everyone, not just those within the disability advocacy or accessibility space.


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