Followed by her guide dog, Mylo, Haben Girma took the stage to address the Andover community during All-School Meeting last Friday, September 16. Girma shared her story as a disability rights advocate and the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School. Girma used a braille computer to receive audience reactions and questions.
During her speech, Girma addressed her experiences during high school, college, and law school with ableist discrimination as she sought education and employment. She faced employers who refused to hire her because of her disability, even though the work she would be doing did not require sight or hearing.
“No one wanted to hire a deafblind woman. I sent in applications for job openings—employers were impressed with my grades in school, my volunteer experiences. So they’d call me in for interviews. As soon as they realized I’m disabled, they’d come up with all kinds of excuses not to hire me. These were tactile jobs. They didn’t require sight—washing dishes, folding laundry in hotels. You don’t need sight to do dishes or laundry. But employers still assumed, ‘nope, you can’t do it, sorry’,” Girma said.
Reflecting on her personal experiences of ableism, she identified ableist discrimination as the primary obstacle people with disabilities around the world face. Girma noted that ableism arises when society fails to consider the needs of people with disabilities.
Girma said, “Ableism is the assumptions that say deafblind people––disabled people––can’t do these jobs, even though we can. Ableism is a system of beliefs that treat disabled people as inferior to non-disabled people. Ableism comes up in all parts of our communities—healthcare, government, new products, and services. A lot of that is being created without thinking about disabled people, and that’s ableism.”
Despite many encounters with the ableist assumptions of others, Girma also described moments when people gave her the chance to show that she was capable of doing the things they doubted she could do. Friends made an effort to accommodate her needs during group activities, a gym manager agreed to hire her, and a surf school agreed to try teaching her to surf. The way to fight ableism, Girma suggested, was to avoid making assumptions and instead ask questions about and solve issues of accessibility.
“When I’ve been included, it’s because people ask: how can we make this more accessible? How do we remove the barriers and then listen to the responses? It’s an ongoing process and conversation. Asking yourself, what can I do to make my community more inclusive? How do we create full inclusion?” said Girma.
Will Lucas ’24, said Girma’s speech helped him and other students learn how they should interact with people with disabilities, learning how to distinguish between being patronizing and being helpful.
“Be more considerate when you’re talking to people. Be sure to ask them how you can help them instead of just assuming that they need your help. Like [Girma] said, the biggest thing that faced her was ableism, not being deafblind, so just keep in mind that not everyone needs your help. It’s nice to still help anyone anyways because I think that it’s good practice for people to look out for each other, but always ask how you can help,” said Lucas.
Lily Williamson ’25, resonated with Girma’s point that rather than her disability, ableism was the ultimate source of her struggles. She also said she came away from Girma’s speech with new insight into how to challenge ableism.
“A lot of the time things aren’t built necessarily with the idea of them being accessible for everyone. It’s really important to make spaces accessible for everyone. Like when you’re a job interviewer, having an unbiased perspective and not these false presumptions about people and their abilities just based on the disability they have. She stated that it’s really the ableism that holds people back and knowing there are small changes you can make things more accessible is a big step in the right direction,” said Williamson.
Girma concluded her speech by reflecting on her own work as an activist working to combat ableism. Acknowledging the diversity that exists in any community, Girma emphasized the importance of understanding and accommodating differences within student communities.
“We need to make spaces where people celebrate different kinds of voices. Maybe someone’s not comfortable with eye contact. Maybe someone needs to move and stretch when they’re paying attention. So, I want us to always think about what’s best, what are the different ways we can connect and communicate, and make sure we’re not unfairly judging people. All of you can help in noticing ableism and working to remove it from our communities,” said Girma.