"My years of isolation taught me to create the future that I want," says Haben Girma, 31

By Aili Nahas
August 09, 2019 10:42 AM
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Shaun Fenn

Haben Girma doesn’t believe in setting limits.

Deafblind since birth, the disability rights attorney has nonetheless spent her life breaking the boundaries of what some would assume a person unable to see or hear can do, including scaling ice glaciers, surfing, and in 2013, becoming the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She also penned a self-titled memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Lawwhich released on Tuesday. 

“I hope people can move away from seeing people with disabilities as incompetent,” says Haben, 31, who now works as an advocate fighting for protections and inclusion for people of all abilities. “If we remove barriers, we can have great inclusion.”

But Haben balks at the notion that she’s an “inspiration.” Says the advocate: “Some people use it as a disguise for pity. They’ll say, ‘You’re so inspiring,’ but in their mind they’re thinking, ‘Thank God I don’t have your problems.’ ”

An Oakland, California native, Haben, whose father is Ethiopian and mother Eritrean, was born with some sight and hearing, though both decreased over time. She is still able to hear some high-pitched sounds, and speaks in a high vocal register.

Haben struggled in school, both socially and in her attempts to keep up with classwork when she didn’t hear the assignments, but by the time she graduated from Lewis & Clark College and then Harvard, “I realized I needed to take responsibility for my education.” Says Haben: “My years of isolation taught me to create the future that I want.”

RELATED: Deafblind Soccer Fan Celebrates Team’s World Cup Victory with Help from Interpreter 

Haben Girma
Girma Family Collection

Today, Haben travels the world for speaking engagements — and to shed light on all-too-common struggles that the disabled (her word: “it’s more direct”) encounter every day.

“Society is constantly silencing people with disabilities,” says Haben, who has a guide dog and communicates via a dual keyboard system she devised to convert type to Braille text.

In particular, Haben is passionate about internet accessibility, helping to win a landmark case in 2014 against a site that failed to provide access to blind readers.

“People with disabilities already face so many barriers in the physical world,” she says. “There’s no reason to have barriers in the digital world when we have the power to convert those 1s and 0s into engaging applications that everyone can use.”

In the end, “my dream world is a place where people with all types of disabilities are included,” says Haben. “There is so much work to be done.”

For more about Haben Girma, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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