Stories

Haben Girma, a deaf-blind lawyer and advocate for people with disabilities, spoke at an Upper School assembly and took questions from students using a device that converts text messages to Braille.
Haben Girma, an author and dvocate for people with disabilities, spoke at an Upper School assembly and took questions from students using a device that converts text messages to Braille.

Haben Girma, a deafblind lawyer, author, and advocate for people with disabilities, says innovative technology can create a more inclusive society.

At an Upper School assembly on Oct. 29, Girma spoke about how her parents, Eritrean refugees, resisted the stigma associated with her disability and inspired her to pursue an education that eventually culminated with her graduation from Harvard Law School.

Technology has helped to make her success possible by opening up new possibilities for communication. An interpreter sends information to her via text, which she can read in Braille on a keyboard. She has limited hearing at high frequencies and has learned to speak with the help of voice coaches.

“I define disability as an opportunity for innovation,” she said. “If you can’t do something one way, find another way. There is always a solution. The disability community has lots of stories of innovation but they are hidden stories. We need to get them out there.”

Human relationships are vital to leading a meaningful and productive life. “We are all social. We all want to connect,” she said. “So growing up as a deafblind student in a sighted-hearing world, I had to think about what are the ways I can connect and communicate with people. Everybody wants friends and relationships but it is hard to meet friends if you’re not hearing what people are saying or if you can’t see if they are smiling or waving at you.

“So I asked myself, what are my skills and my talents. One of my talents was my sense of touch, and in first grade, I started learning Braille. “

Technology that uses touch can help people with limited sight. Captioning, sign language, and visual cues can help people with limited hearing. Raising awareness among the general public for the needs of disabled people makes the world more inclusive.

“If we don’t do anything, barriers continue,” she said. “We have to take active steps to remove barriers. I have been very successful because there are people in my life who have removed barriers so I can be included.”

Members of the Riverdale community can watch the livestream with a password.