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May 01, 2019

Haben Girma

The Journey from Self-Advocate to Legal Advocate to Educator

From an early age, thanks to her parents and teachers, Haben Girma moved through life believing that her disability (deafblind) enhances her ability to tackle challenges. After encountering several access barriers, Haben discovered that many barriers will disappear through self-advocacy. “When you assert your dreams, your needs, and your rights, opportunities become limitless.”

Haben thinks in terms of solutions. Typically, this requires her to turn to her creativity or reach out to experts for help. “It’s too easy to dismiss something as impossible.” For instance, Haben and her rock climbing instructor couldn’t think of a way that she could be the belayer, the person who holds the climber’s ropes, because she couldn’t hear the climber telling her that he was ready to come down. Haben then turned to a rock climbing expert, who suggested that the climber tug on the rope several times to signal Haben.

Why law school? Haben felt inspired by lawyers who applied the law to remove barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities. She was the first deafblind student to attend and graduated from Harvard Law School. While there, she continued to hone her problem-solving skills. For example, Haben came up with an idea to capture the quick back and forth of the Socratic method. Voice transliterators in the back of the room would relay the discussion to her using an assistive listening system, and their voices would transmit from their microphones into her earphones.

After advocating for herself all these years, Haben now advocates for others. Currently, she works as a first-year Skadden Fellow at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkley, California. Her area of practice is access to education for students with disabilities. Haben views technology as the key to access for many people. “Technological advances continue to provide disability rights lawyers with exciting questions and solutions.” Haben created her own real-time transcription system that outputs to a Braille display because CART software is currently incompatible with screenreaders. For the next two years at DRA, Haben will focus on making digital instructional materials more accessible for students with disabilities at the college level.

Haben finds the disability rights community to be very supportive and views them as an asset for disability rights lawyers like herself. She has had many mentors from this community over the years. “Sharing personal experiences and knowledge enriches our community.”

What are Haben’s goals for the future? To continue learning from disability rights lawyers and educating the greater community. “In a sense, disability rights lawyers serve as community educators, educators with the potential to file complaints if people refuse to learn.

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