Haben Girma grew up in Oakland, CA with her parents insisting that being Deaf-Blind did not mean she couldn’t attend her local public school. She transitioned from Skyline High School to the Department of Rehabilitation where she and her counselor began talking about the technology she would need to attend college—like note takers. (Haben uses a wireless Apple keyboard that transmits to a digital braille computer, which she is then able to read in digital braille.) DOR also sent her to the National Federation for the Blind’s living skills center to help prepare her for the dorms. She attended Lewis & Clark College and went on to get her Juris Doctor (J.D.) from Harvard Law. She now serves as a Skadden Fellowship Attorney in Berkeley, where she is challenging barriers to accessible technology.
I have very unique needs in terms of communication, access to information, so the average person doesn't know what I need. So the average person is not going to be able to help me unless I let them know how to do so. If I wanted to get anywhere in life, from the playground to law school, I needed to be able to tell people and communicate what I needed. I think having a disability, especially Deaf-Blindness has... trained me to be a strong advocate.
I think a lot of people with disabilities go through the process of... not wanting to ask for help and being afraid of being a burden. And then at some point during the acceptance process they learn to be comfortable with asking for help and stop internalizing this fear of being a burden, or identifying themselves as someone who is a burden on society and a burden on their friends.
One of the tricks is to reframe your disability as an asset, as something that adds to relationships, and adds to society. So, I went to a musical this weekend and I couldn't really see what was on the stage and I was missing parts of the.. the music and the lyrics. My friend had the keyboard and he was typing descriptions, but we were also having a conversation. So it was a way for him to type what he was thinking andhis perceptions of the show in a room where you’re normally supposed to be quiet and not talk.
The one way to look at that is he’s being overburdened and inconvenienced. Another way to look at that is he gets this opportunity to chat at the theater where you’re normally required to be quiet and share his thoughts during the theater, whereas most people have to save it til afterwards.