She's blind. She's deaf. She's black. She's female. And both her parents came here from other countries. Some might say that such a list of facts comprises a pile of pretty daunting odds for professional advancement, and for sure, Haben Girma has experienced employment discrimination. But this young, vibrant, brilliant California woman, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard law and to be dubbed a Champion of Change by President Barack Obama, definitely knows how to turn perceived liabilities into strengths, and is fully, successfully employed.
I first met Haben Girma when we served together as speakers for the Braille Summit, a conference hosted by Perkins and the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. We made an instant connection over our love of reading, braille, combined vision and hearing loss, and maybe a shared quirky sense of humor. For this article, I caught up with her when she had just returned from Beijing, where she conducted some speaking and disability awareness training and where, she says, she ate piles of delicious food and lots of dumplings. Near the end of that visit, the Four Seasons delighted her with a "gorgeous braille plate" on which little round candies spelled, in braille, "Beijing is sweet for you." In the lower left corner was the cover of her book released by Hachette earlier this year and reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
At this writing in early October of 2019, her schedule over the next six weeks is a dazzling lineup of presentations crisscrossing the United States as well as appearances in Toronto and London. Only two of those events are part of her book tour. The rest are keynote addresses and presentations at conferences, universities, and professional gatherings.
Girma has been both deaf and blind all her life. As a child, she had enough residual vision that she could see a parent on a couch as one blob atop another, and she had enough hearing that she learned to use her voice to speak. She speaks beautifully (even narrates her own book for Audible.com and NLS BARD).
Growing up in California with parents from Eritrea and Ethiopia, Girma recognizes that she was extremely fortunate to receive an excellent education with the advantages of access and accommodation at an early age. She was taught to read and write braille and to use access technology. Over time, as her small amount of hearing grew even smaller and navigating the social fabric of conversation with one or more people in noisy venues became more and more difficult, she employed technology in her own style of face-to-face communication. With a BrailleNote Apex paired with a typical Bluetooth keyboard, she can pretty much talk to anyone, anywhere. The person speaking to her types on the keyboard, and Haben receives the typed words instantly on her BrailleNote Apex. She responds with her own voice.
Upon graduation from Harvard Law, she landed a place as a fellow with Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley. As invitations to speak kept coming her way, however, she began to think that she might make more of an impact on tearing down ableist attitudes by writing, speaking, and training. One pivotal experience, she says, was when she was invited to speak at Google in July of 2015. The response to her presentation was so overwhelming that it determined her professional future. "People were excited to learn more about accessibility," she says, "and that made me want to invest time in training." She finished her appointed term with Disability Rights Advocates in 2016. Although she is still licensed to practice law, her career today is entirely focused on speaking and training.
She is hired to present anything from15-minute speeches to 90-minute workshops. She has a team of about ten people who type questions and comments from audience members for her, and thus facilitate her lively interaction during presentations. Sometimes, she says, participants prefer to type to her themselves, a choice she welcomes. Carving out a niche for herself in the 30-percent portion of the people with disabilities who are employed has not been effortless. She has, in the past, experienced the sting of being trapped in that larger, 70-percent, unemployed portion.
Traveling to Alaska one college summer with her friend, Gordon, she had her first personal encounter with that ugly truth we all sometimes face. She writes:
Disability professionals warned me: work hard or you'll never find employment. Around 70 percent of blind people are unemployed. I studied hard in school, graduating high school as
valedictorian. I spent a summer sharpening my independence skills at the
Louisiana Center for the Blind. My college GPA is excellent. I
even have volunteer work experience on my résumé. The 70 percent
unemployment rate still managed to claim me, leaving me jobless in Jobville,
Alaska. When you do everything right and society
stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will always overcome obstacles. Gordon offered encouragement, but I didn't want to hear it. He drummed up
Alaska as the land of long summer days where the sun doesn't set until 10
pm. He promised that I'd find a summer job here. Instead, I found
employment discrimination. Blindness is just the lack of sight, but people
inflate the disability to an absurd degree. They assume incompetence, intellectual challenges, and an inability to contribute with alternative techniques. This is decades of cultural stories perpetuating the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to the nondisabled. Wherever I go, regardless of how hard I work, I keep encountering ableism.
Girma did eventually land a job that college summer in Alaska, and she has gained momentum steadily as a staunch advocate for her own rightful, equal place in the world along with all other people with disabilities. Having published her first book, the autobiographical Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, earlier this year, she now adds book signings and talks to her constant flood of invitations to speak, train, and build disability awareness.
Arguably, any successfully employed person is a person who is multidimensional, a person with a range of interests and activities. Haben Girma is no exception. She loves dancing, and goes dancing once a week. (She learned to dance as a kid from a blind dance instructor at enchanted Hill Camp.) She wears flat shoes, not heels, and feels the beat through the hands and shoulders of her partners. Other activities include hiking, surfing, paddle boarding, and kayaking. She is by no means afraid of adventure!
As I have with every Employment Matters subject, I asked Girma what three tools come to mind as essential to her success. Without hesitation, she named her braille computer, keyboard, and iPhone.
I then asked her for advice for those who are still struggling to find an employer willing to hire a person with a visual impairment. "Identify your strengths and work on developing them," she replied. "[Then] find industries that value those strengths."
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- An Interview with Kelly Egan, Customer Relations Manager for the Sprint Corporation by Deborah Kendrick
- A Profile of Jeff Bishop, Program Manager, Microsoft Corporation by Deborah Kendrick
More by this author:
- A Profile of Dr. Daniel Zingaro, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
- Petr Kucheryavyy, Senior Manager, Accessibility, Charter Communications