ASM: Haben Girma, Disability Rights Activist

As she moved her hands across a Braille keyboard, Haben Girma smiled in response to her scribe, who, through a Bluetooth keyboard, communicated to Girma the student body’s laughter at her joke at All School Meeting (ASM).

Girma, a disability rights activist and the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, spoke to the Andover community this Wednesday. In addition to writing a book, which will be published in 2019, Girma has been honored by former President Barack Obama as a White House Champion of Change and by “Forbes Magazine” as a member of the magazine’s “30 Under 30” list.

In her presentation, Girma urged communities to be more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities by sharing stories of her own fight against discrimination.

“The fact that she didn’t just get the [law] degree and decide to move on with her career, but that she’s also advocating for people like her to come through the education system — to be a part of that is very inspirational,” said Ria Vieira ’19.

Girma grew up in Oakland, California, where her school district accommodated blind students. By first grade, Girma was learning Braille. She picked up reading quickly, excelling through her school work. After graduating high school, Girma attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oreg.

In one story she shared during ASM, Girma discussed her difficulty reading the lunch menu in college. Because the only way to access the menu was through a written copy, she would often spend time waiting in line for meals she didn’t want or couldn’t have. After struggling with this issue, Girma decided to voice her right to read the menu.

“Blindness wasn’t the problem. Disability wasn’t the barrier. The barrier was the format of the menu. So I went to the cafeteria manager and explained that I can’t access the menu because of the format of the menu,” Girma said during ASM.

Girma initially faced resistance from the school, which led her to consider tolerating the issue. However, after discussing this problem with her friends, she was motivated to take action. She spoke with the school and requested menus accessible to blind people.

“It’s our choice to accept unfairness, or to advocate for justice. These small things matter. They add up. When we work on addressing the small barriers, we build up the skills to address the bigger obstacles. If we want to shatter the glass ceiling and address oppression in all the different fields: gender, race, religion, disability; we need to practice these skills. And small things, depending on perspective, can make a huge difference,” said Girma.

Girma also stressed the importance of accessible media as one way of reaching out to members within the disabled community. She showed a demonstration of how apps on her phone can help her navigate websites and text, as well as a video of her using Tactile American Sign Language to communicate.

“This really changed my perspective on how disabled people go through life. As Ms. Girma said, she moves through life differently. She isn’t better or worse off because of her blind-deafness… My biggest takeaway is probably that, rather than making different apps or programs for disabled people, we need to take the things that we already have and make those things accommodating. It’s the community that needs to work harder to make quality of life equal for these individuals,” said Posie Millett ’20.

In addition to inspiring people with disabilities and creating awareness of the struggles they face, Girma hopes that discussions on accessibility will continue to thrive at Andover to help the school ensure that everyone has an equal opportunities, regardless of ability.

“We have to make the decision to help those with differences to access all the information that we get on a daily basis, whether it’s on the internet, in books, or from attending events… We need to make sure we have the best technology to help anyone with a disability attend our events. We do so many wonderful things on campus; let’s make accessibility a priority. I think Haben has shown us the way to do that,” said Maureen Crowley, Program Coordinator of the Academic Skills Center.