Haben Girma resets expectations as the first deafblind woman who conquered Harvard Law School. As a deafblind woman who climbed a glacier. As a deafblind women who met former President Barack Obama. And as a deafblind woman with a wicked sense of humor, evident starting in the third sentence of her book and sprinkled into each story she tells.
Celebrating the end of final exams at Harvard Law—a remarkable achievement for anyone—offers one such moment as a friend joins Haben at the bar, typing his side of the conversation on a keyboard:
“Is that lemonade?” he asks.
“Yes.” I raise my eyebrows, wondering if he is going to tease me about my drink choices.
“No alcohol? Don’t you want to celebrate?”
I smile. “I’m already Deafblind. I don’t want to be Deaf, blind, and drunk.”
The memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, by Haben Girma, was just released on August 6.
In just 31 years, Haben has conquered more of the world than most of us do in a lifetime. Her living memoir takes us through an emotional journey that continues today—detailing her disabilities, her challenges, and her victories in the moment they occurred. Readers walk in her shoes, experiencing different milestones through stories that shaped who she is today. One of the first describes the sheer terror Haben felt as a young child on an airplane when authorities removed and detained her father for some time and the relief when reunited. At different points, I found myself upset and then infuriated that society judges and constrains, then appreciative and reflective of my own health, and finally galvanized to act against injustice.
In later stories, she describes instances of frustration and being tolerated in a society that caters to able-bodied people. I found myself asking what makes a deafblind woman brave enough to conquer facing off against a bull, building a school in Mali brick by brick, and excelling at salsa dancing? In the book, Haben reveals how her family’s support, role models, and access to technology and services unavailable to previous generations of people with disabilities strengthened her resolve to overcome barriers. Now she’s focused on removing barriers for others.
Her resolve to do this comes through advocacy: from first making her college cafeteria’s menu more accessible to later winning with the National Federation of the Blind in court, making digital websites and mobile applications accessible.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Haben twice, and in both conversations, she shared this lasting notion: any one of us can become disabled at any time. Something to think about as we go about the routine of our daily lives. This book is a must read for everyone. The depth and impact of these stories instill readers with a greater appreciation, awareness, and motivation to advocate for people with disabilities and to make places, products and services more representative of entire society. When we remove limits for what people can do, we all rise.
Even her name offers a call to action that she continues to embrace:
Haben means, “Pride!” Haben means, “We stand up for our freedom.”