Deaf and Blind, BUT Harvard Law Graduate

At work, I was selected to attend a conference called Grace Hopper. It is named after a woman computer professional who went to write the initial code for COBOL. 

The main theme that I took away from the conference was ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ and how woefully little I know about it. There were a few inspiring speakers – one that I want to talk about is Haben Girma. The name was very unfamiliar to me, but her bio was intriguing. She is the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. For the first time, I wondered how does a deaf/blind person navigate the world? She opened up another world for me that I never realized existed. 

Haben’s Book Cover

She shared some stories that I want to share with you.

First of all, if you are wondering how does a deaf and blind person speak at a virtual conference – as the interviewer was asking questions, a typist was typing so that Haben could read on her Braille computer. So there was a delay in response. And the interviewer described what she was wearing, earrings etc., so that Haben could get a better picture.

Cafeteria Menu Story.  Growing up, the menu in the cafeteria was on paper, so she had no idea what was on the menu. She was a vegetarian, so she could not just eat whatever. She spoke to the manager, asking if he could email her the menu to read on her braille computer. The manager told her he did not have the time to cater to special needs. And what Haben said stayed with me – ‘Eating is not a special need.’ So, she had to stand in queue – take the food only to realize it wasn’t vegetarian. Anyways fast forward, she learned about the disability act and told the manager that unless he did something, she would take legal action. The next day the menu arrived in her email. And the following year, when another blind person joined the school, they had no trouble with the menu. 

Surfing. One of her high school teachers asked her if she wanted to go surfing. Haben said yes, and the teacher took her to a tandem surfing where two people were on the same surfboard. She liked the experience, so she went to various surfing schools asking if they could teach her. A lot of them said no, but one school said they would try. And they were able to come up with a system by which she and the instructor could surf side by side.

Haben surfing.

Harvard. When she applied to Harvard – they told her we had never had a deaf and a blind student before. And she responded with, ‘I have never been to Harvard before.’

This made me wonder how you can justify spending so much time over just one person in reality. Haben explained that deafness had a significant role in the invention of the telephone /email and texting. Bell’s mother had hearing problems, so he got into acoustics. Her point was if you develop a solution for the minority – the majority can use it. 

She washes her dishes and folds her clothes because her parents required her to do them growing up. Then why do employers and others assume that she cannot do certain things? 

And most importantly, it is a mindset change. If we lived in a world where all solutions were expected to serve disabled people, then developing for one person or more would not even matter. And she made a good point when she said – it is a muscle that we have a build as a society. We can start with small things like adding image descriptions when we upload media on the internet.

It is time we truly expanded our view to include everybody – environment, future generations, minorities – maybe this will help humanity evolve to 2.0. Are you ready?

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