Meet Eritrean-American Haben Girma – Harvard Law School’s 1st Deaf-Blind Graduate

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If you are looking for some inspiration to show you you should never give up on life, meet Harvard Law School graduate and practicing lawyer Haben Girma. She is no ordinary Ivy League school alum, she is a woman who has defeated the odds and set a new historical standard for the prestigious institution.

You see, Haben is the first deaf and blind graduate from Harvard Law school, and is a brilliant example of what life looks like when you don’t allow a set of seemingly-difficult circumstances to dictate your journey.

Although Haben, 27, was born in the US, she is of Eritrean descent. Her older brother, who is also deaf and blind, was born in Eritrea during a time of great political strife. Her mother fled the country in the early 1980s in the midst of the Eritrea’s 30 year war the basis of which was about Eritreans wanting to gain independence from Ethiopia.

Before they left, however, Haben’s grandmother was having a hard time taking her brother to school as they told her it was impossible to educate deaf-blind students. This was the breaking point for her family, and Haben’s mother, only 16 years old at the time, walked for 3 weeks across the Eritrean desert in order to find a refugee organization that would help her migrate to the United States.

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Haben was eventually born in California, and the family experienced a very different reaction from the education system than in their home country. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990 by George H.W Bush in order to end discrimination against people with disabilities, Haben has access to opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise had, which eventually led her to become a Harvard Law graduate.

During her time at the school she was named a White House Champion of Change for her advocacy on behalf of deafblind individuals and her efforts in promoting educational excellence for African Americans, according to a Harvard Law website blog post.

Today Haben is a Skadden Fellowship attorney as well as a Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, California. Her mission in life is to help other students with disabilities overcome barriers like she did and succeed in life, and one of the ways she does that is by utilizing technology that has helped her communicate with those around her.

This past July marked the 20th anniversary of the act and the White House held a special celebration to commemorate the occasion. Haben was invited to meet President Obama and got to showcase the unique technology she uses in a special keyboard, which you can see in the video below.

At the event, Haben gave a speech sharing her family’s struggle to get where they are today, and encouraged others that they too can succeed no matter what.

“For my grandmother back in Africa, my success in law school seemed like magic. For all of us here, we know people with disabilities succeed not by magic, but through opportunities in America, and the hard won power of the ADA,” she said.

The ADA has helped many more people like Haben become an asset to society, and has helped them find opportunities where their unique skill sets and abilities can be showcased in a way that breaks down stigma surrounding those with disabilities.

“Graduating from Harvard Law School says a lot about what can be done when you have the right attitude,” said Haben at teh White House.

Her story is a bold reminder that nothing is a barrier to what we want to achieve unless we allow it. War, geography and an unwilling education system in her home country did not stop her mother from deciding to make a change in order for her future daughter to have the opportunities she never did.

In 2014 Haben gave a TEDx Talk in Baltimore about how she applies her unique set of circumstances to be a champion of change for others in the community in her law career. It is a great reminder to all of us today that we have been uniquely gifted with a life that can be used to make a difference in the world, but first we have to choose to see past our difficulties and societies expectations.

For some extra inspiration, watch Haben’s TEDx Talk below:


 

 

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