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Lafayette Reads Together 2021

Haben : the deafblind woman who conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma

Book Reviews

Publishers Weekly

With wit and passion, Haben, a disability rights lawyer, public speaker, and the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law, takes readers through her often unaccommodating world. Born in the Bay Area in 1988, Haben spent summers in her family’s homeland of Eritrea, in the capital Asmara, where her deafblind older brother hadn’t been allowed to attend school. While living in the U.S. afforded her more opportunity, she missed out on assignments, jokes, and life’s nuances: “It’s a sighted hearing classroom, in a sighted hearing school, in a sighted hearing society. In this environment, I’m disabled.” At a young age, Haben vowed to change that environment and pushed beyond her own comfort zones: dancing salsa, helping build a school in Mali, and climbing an iceberg. At Lewis & Clark College she advocated for a braille cafeteria menu; at Harvard Law, she developed a text-to-braille system, which allowed a second party to communicate details to her during classes, in court, and at a White House Americans with Disabilities Act celebration, where as guest speaker she was “starstruck around all these heroes who paved the way for Generation ADA.” This is a heartwarming memoir of a woman who champions access and dignity for all. (Aug.)

excerpt from American Foundation for the Blind

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.

Kirkus Reviews

An Eritrean American Deafblind disabilities advocate tells the story of how she learned to succeed in a world made to the measure of sighted, hearing people.

Haben grew up in Oakland as the daughter of Eritrean parents who fled war-torn Ethiopia. Born with exceptionally poor vision and hearing that deteriorated steadily as she aged, her Deafblind world felt neither “small [nor] limited” and was instead her comfortable “normal.” Though the author’s disabilities sometimes caused her to struggle in school and daily life, her positive outlook—shaped in part by parents who had struggled to build a new life in America and playmates who treated her as “someone with gifts to share and lessons to teach”—helped her overcome the barriers that stood in her way. As a teenager, the author consciously transcended both her limitations and the protective boundaries set by her parents by learning to salsa and participating in a school-building project in Mali. She spent part of her post–high school summer at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where she learned how to navigate with a cane and guide dog and to use a radial arm saw. In college, the author unwittingly stumbled upon her career path when she fought for, and won, the right to have the printed cafeteria menus she could not read emailed to a personal computer that translated them into digital braille. She went on to attend Harvard Law School, becoming its first Deafblind graduate. As a public service lawyer, she became part of the legal team that helped expand coverage provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act to include not just the brick-and-mortar world, but the digital one as well. Warmhearted and optimistic, the book celebrates personal courage and triumph as well as the unlimited potential of those whose real disability is living in a society that too often does not make accommodations for their physical impairments.

An inspiring and illuminating memoir.

About the Author

Haben Girma at the White House

(Courtesy: Haben Girma)

The first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, Haben Girma is a human rights lawyer advancing disability justice. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award, a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and TIME100 Talks. President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Chancellor Angela Merkel have all honored Haben. Haben believes disability is an opportunity for innovation, and she teaches organizations the importance of choosing inclusion. The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, and TODAY Show featured her memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.

Haben was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she currently lives. Her memoir takes readers on adventures around the world, including her parents’ homes in Eritrea and Ethiopia, building a school under the scorching Saharan sun, training with a guide dog in New Jersey, climbing an iceberg in Alaska, fighting for blind readers at a courthouse in Vermont, and talking with President Obama at The White House. Warm, funny, thoughtful, and uplifting, this captivating book is a testament to Haben’s determination to resist isolation and find the keys to connection.