The story of Haben Girma is one which evokes so many emotions, and gives hope to anyone who comes across it. Being born deaf and blind, and surmounting all the challenges in life to achieve greatness is truly an inspiring story for the world.
Girma was born to African parents of Ethiopian and Eritrean origins, who migrated to the United States and lived in Oakland, California. That was where she was born, and that was where she grew up. She found it hard as a child in public schools, but she persevered nonetheless.
She learned sign language, spoken English, and Braille, while she was in public schools. Communication was difficult for Girma, but she created a means to communicate with those around her.
The system she created required a typist to input spoken discussion into a keyboard which is connected through Bluetooth to a live Braille reader. She then answers using spoken English. She also had a service dog, which helped her in moving from one location to the other.
An Inspiring Story
The migration of Girma’s parents to the United States happened in 1983 when Girma’s mother escaped the war of independence between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Girma’s mother, Saba Gebreyesus, in an interview, recounted how she trekked from Eritrea to Sudan, for two weeks, to escape the war. She had to walk throughout the nights to avoid been noticed by the various military factions that were fighting in that area.
Saba said that she had to sleep on top of a tree, one a particular night, with hungry Hyenas surrounding the foot of the tree.
She eventually made it to the United States, where she met Girma’s father, who also migrated from Ethiopia. They fell in love and Girma was born in 1988. Girma’s parents are an important part of her success story because they worked hard to make sure she had everything.
During Girma’s college days at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, she had to live up to the challenges she faced and become an activist. One of such challenges was not knowing the menu at the cafeteria. Because the menus were posted on the wall, she could not see or read them. Her classmates chose whatever they wanted, but for her, she got whatever anyone helped her chose.
She later demanded the cafeteria manager to provide her the menu electronically, so she could translate it to her Braille. But the cafeteria manager was being nonchalant about it. After a while, she insisted and threatened to sue the cafeteria and college.
This made them sit up and they started to send her the menu regularly to her email. Her protest and fight in this regard were able to set a standard that favored another Blind student who was admitted into the college the next years.
She went on to get admitted to Harvard. At that point in her life, she had made up her mind to be a legal advocate for people with disabilities.
To get along and cope with her studies, Girma set up various systems that would make her stay at Harvard easy. She got all her assigned readings in digital formats, and listened to them on her computer or read them on the display of her Braille.
Her classes and lecture sessions were more of a technical and interesting one. She normally had a voice transliterator, who stayed in the back of the lecture room, the transliterator would narrate the words and teachings of the lecturer through a microphone into her earphones.
When she had to learn with groups of students and in a noisier place, she would switch to a two-keyboard system which she had developed. With the keyboards, her classmates could type into a Bluetooth keyboard, and the words would show up on the Braille for her to read.
In an interview with Harvard Law Daily, she said: “This system has let me communicate everywhere, “from the loudest dance club to HLS receptions.”
The two-keyboard system which Girma built was instrumental in her communication with Obama, when she was voted to the white house in 2013, for the anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Acts.
Reacting to the warm welcome she received from Obama towards her system of communication, she told NBC that “A lot of people are uncomfortable with something that’s different…they come up with all kinds of excuses that basically say ‘this is weird; I don’t want to get involved.’” But Obama wasn’t. “He graciously switched from speaking to typing so that I could access his words. And we had an awesome conversation.”
Girma scaled through all the hurdles that her disability presented and finally graduated from Harvard Law School. She went ahead to work as a Disability Rights Advocate, in a non-profit firm in Berkeley, California. While working at the non-profit, she stood out and she represented them in many cases and won in favor of disabled people in America.
Her story is one which teaches us all that we are stronger than we can imagine. Many in her shoes would have sat back home and allowed their family support and carry them as if there was no hope. But that was not Girma. She stood her ground and made history.