Haben Girma tells us on the first page of her beautifully written memoir that she is deafblind, and she tells you what that means. There is no apology and no room for awe or pity. It is just a statement of fact, a quick dispensing of information to get the facts on the table. After all, in her Eritrean mother's native language, her name means "pride." And Haben Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate Harvard Law, and dubbed by President Barack Obama a "Champion of Change," has plenty of well-deserved pride.
Relayed always in the present tense and from Girma’s unique point of view, readers learn from this book something of what it is like to be young and vibrant in a world that was designed for people who can hear and see. Girma has only the tiniest remnants of each of these senses, but we learn quickly that her experience of the world is by no means small. It is, in fact, large – taking her to other countries and other cultures.
The sense of place is perhaps the most compelling takeaway from the book. Through Girma’s clearly communicated perception of the world around her, we are immersed completely in a circle of children playing with a toy piano in Eritrea, in a hilarious game of hide-and-seek played spontaneously by blind adults at a dinner party while Girma is at a blindness training center in Louisiana, and in the overwhelmingly cacophonous student cafeteria with Girma during her first year at college. We taste with her the food that she ordered with only her sense of smell and guesswork to lead her to the wrong choice, and feel with her the dismay when her guide dog causes her to trip and fall on the first day of training. Girma takes us to the White House, to Mali for building a school with other teenagers, and into her own private world of affirmation to build self-confidence when she is temporarily uncertain. We feel her elation when the courage to dare has delivered real joy.
Because Girma was born in 1988, we see her as a teenager and young 20-something throughout most of this book, and so we learn of her typical, yet quite atypical, struggle with her parents for independence and individuality. She is deeply enmeshed in the love of her family and its rich traditions and profoundly in awe of the courage her parents displayed in fleeing war-torn countries to come to the United States where they were initially alone. Yet, despite her youth, she sees early on the parallels between her mother’s flight as an Eritrean refugee and her own desperate need to be free of protective adult authority.
Her parents are Girma (her father, born in Ethiopia) and Saba (her mother, born in Eritrea.) Both traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they met. When her parents ask her about her own national identity, she answers without hesitation: she is American. Born just before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities act and raised in the liberal climate of Northern California, Girma recognizes how fortunate she has been to get an outstanding education with necessary accommodations such as braille materials, assistive technology, and human beings to convey to her what others are saying. Mixed with that gratitude, however, is a keen awareness of the importance of civil rights.
In her first year at college, she doesn’t yet have a chosen career path. Day after day in the student dining facility, she struggles with not knowing which foods are being served. Other students can read a daily menu posted on the wall, so she asks the manager to email it to her. The solution is a simple one, but the manager resists.
After a failing tug-of-war, Girma does some research and writes him a letter. The attitude she expresses there serves as the foundation for the attitude she will ultimately carry through Harvard Law and as into her work as a disability rights lawyer.
“I'm not asking for a favor,” she writes to the manager of the Bon Appetit dining hall. “I'm asking Bon Appetit to comply with the law.”
Although the experience of being both deaf and blind can be an isolating one, this is not a book about loneliness or isolation. Rather, it's a book about the determination to live life to the fullest extent and find work-arounds where ones are not already in place. Through her adventures of learning to dance, sliding down an iceberg, or convincing her parents that they should give their teenager with a disability permission to travel with other adolescents to a country halfway across the world to help build a school, Haben Girma enables readers to understand that disabilities need not define or limit the individual who has them. If you want to know more about combined vision and hearing loss, read this book. If you want to know more about the rights of people with disabilities, read this book. And, if you want to find a reason to feel hope about the present and future nature of humanity, read this book.
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law is available from Audible.com, Bookshare, and NLS BARD as DB96188. The audio version is read by the author. The hardcover print version is available from Amazon and bookstores.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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