October 15, 2019

Journey of Deafblind Lawyer Inspires, Teaches

Jason Goitia

Haben Girma shows what an attorney with a disability can accomplish. She’s both deaf and blind, and her new memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, has many stories about her facing challenges, and showing the world that her challenges didn’t limit her. As she writes in the introduction, “This book takes readers on a quest for connection across the world, including building a school under the scorching Malian sun, climbing icebergs in Alaska, training with a guide dog in New Jersey, studying law at Harvard, and sharing a magical moment with President Obama at the White House.”

Haben Girma is the daughter of parents from two different African countries; her father is from Ethiopia, and her mother is from Eritrea. Although Haben herself was born and grew up in California, that perspective influences how she takes on the world. The memoir opens with a harrowing story of her father being taken off an airplane by Ethiopian soldiers during her childhood. In reference to her background, this memoir discusses the complicated and historic relationship between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

She also discusses the reality of growing up as a child with a disability in the United States and going to a mainstream school. She shows that these challenges can be confronted head-on and handled with attention and care (as well as reasonable accommodations), not by ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist.  A theme running through the memoir is the importance of independence and obliterating misconceptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do. The data clearly shows that the vast majority of disabilities are invisible and people often hide a key aspect of him or herself. 

Like many children with disabilities, she challenges her parents to allow her to do things, such as travel. She also faces colleagues and mentors who underestimate and look down on her. Throughout the story, she endeavors to break down the myths of what she unable to accomplish, while never falling into the untrue and damaging myth of “overcoming” disability. As research shows, disability inclusion provides an advantage for those organizations that work to include people with disabilities, such as Accenture, Microsoft, and Sidley Austin (all three have been recognized by the ABA for including attorneys with disabilities). 

In Haben’s case, she is a Harvard Law School graduate with international experience. She writes that society treats “people with disabilities as incapable of contributing, and yet these kids [in Eritrea] treat me like someone with gifts to share and lessons to teach.”  In her discussion of her experience at Harvard Law School, she explained that she used communication devices to interact with other students, professors, and people at networking events. In particular, she discussed using her Braille computer to network. (“Tactical sign language is our backup plan” was decided during a strategy meeting.)

Dancing salsa allows her to use her sense of touch to manage her lack of vision and lack of hearing a beat. She describes using the skills she has to manage the senses she doesn’t have. For example,she also describes using her sense of touch to volunteer to build houses in Mali. Building houses helped prove that she could still make a worthwhile contribution and have a disability at the same time. Her disability allows her to perceive problems that others don’t even notice.

The memoir also makes clear that a disability rights legal practice also provides her with great legal training. For example, she discussed an attorney with a disability that was the best litigator she’s ever witnessed: “Disability Rights hero Daniel Goldstein grips the court’s attention. He stands at the lectern before Judge William K. Sessions, III, in the district court for the district of Vermont.”

As a Skadden fellow after law school, she operated a disability rights practice. As discussed above, the disability rights legal practice helped develop her legal skills and gave her front line access to top lawyers. 

“As a public service lawyer, my salary is far below what a Harvard Law graduate would typically make, but still exceeds the average income for blind Americans, 70 percent of whom struggle with unemployment,” writes Haben.  The memoir then explains that disability rights are civil rights, and she shows that the ADA is federal legislation that offers protections that help businesses reach a “giant” market. 

In conclusion, this is a worthwhile book that you should read to better understand the challenges of the disabled. Haben gives concrete examples of her youth, her perspective, and the excellent legal training she received.  The  book discusses the value for business organizations and law firms to include people with disabilities; her unique voice brings us just a glimpse into how disabilities can be an asset to businesses. The memoir shows the level of talent and size of the potential market that businesses could reach by including persons with disabilities.

Jason Goitia is active in the Lawyers with Disabilities Involvement Subcommittee of the ABA Business Law Section, was chair of the Subcommittee until April 2016, and is a Commissioner of the ABA Commission on Disability Rights. He has a Hispanic background and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He received his undergraduate degree, with honors, from the University of Florida and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He was an attorney with Mayer Brown in Chicago, Illinois, practicing finance and securities law, and then worked for Goldman, Sachs & Co. While at Goldman Sachs, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Subsequent to the diagnosis, he started his own law firm, and was named one of eight innovative attorneys on an International list by a leader in the eLawyering movement who was an eLawyering expert at Stanford University Law School. In truth, the changes he used were based on realities he directly experienced. The improvements showed him the benefits of disability inclusion.