3. Haben Girma Sees Possibility Where Others See Barriers to Change
When she took the stage to take her latest honor — a 2017 Making a Difference award from Black Girl’s Rock for her work as a global inclusion leader and advocate for people with disabilities — Haben Girma instantly filled the room with the wisdom and beautiful smile that have become her trademark.
Girma has been deafblind since about age 5, yet she has worked near miracles by teaching millions to see new ways to use technology and other forms of innovation to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. In addition to her work, she lives her life in ways that show us barriers to opportunities for the 1.3 million people with disabilities around the world exist primarily in our minds, not in daily life.
When told that the deaf could not dance because they could not hear music, she discovered the joys of salsa through rhythm and vibration. When she decided she wanted to know what it was like to surf, without sight, she mounted a board and rode the waves knowing that balance does not require vision and sound.
“As a black woman and disabled, stories sometimes say my life doesn’t matter,” Girma said at a recent speaking engagement. “I choose to live a story that says my life does matter. We all have the power to create our own story. As for disability, I choose to believe that alternative techniques [for reading, working, mobility] are of equal value.”
Girma, who became the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School in 2013, advises policymakers how to make the world a more welcoming, functional place for people with physical and other limitations. She is also an artful storyteller who uses her family’s history and struggles as a way to help us all see that obstacles only exist to be removed.
Next spring, the American Foundation for the Blind will honor Girma with a Helen Keller Achievement Award “for her advocacy and dedication to creating equal opportunities for people with disabilities.”
Girma often shares the wise counsel her mother shared with her. Lessons learned as her mother struggled to escape Eritrea, living as a refugee in the Sudan, while making her way to the United States. “Geography does not create justice,” her mother taught her. “People create justice; communities create justice. All of us make the make choice to accept oppression around us or advocate for justice.”
“Disability never holds anyone back,” Girma said. “Disability is never the barrier. The barrier is society.”