The deafblind woman who conquered Harvard comes to TU

By Kyle Hobstetter on October 21, 2019

Towson University welcomes disability lawyer, author, and speaker, Haben Girma, the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School

Haben Girma’s story is both unique and universal. The disability rights lawyer, author and speaker is the deafblind daughter of a refugee from Eritrea and an immigrant from Ethiopia.   

She surfs and salsa dances, has climbed icebergs in Alaska and helped build a school in Mali, and in 2013 she became the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. 

Haben now travels around the world to advocate for people with disabilities, and on Wednesday, Oct. 23 she will present a special talk at Towson University. The event takes place at 7 p.m. in the West Village Ballrooms, and while the event is free, registration is required.

Haben Girma Book Cover
The cover of Haben Girma's book "The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law." 

The event is sponsored by the Center for Student Diversity, the Office of Inclusion & Institutional Equity and the Office of Accessibility and Disability Services (ADS).

Susan Willemin, director of Accessibility and Disability Services, has been looking to bring a speaker to TU to talk about diversity and inclusion from a disability perspective for a while now. After watching Girma speak at an Association on Higher Education and Disability conference last summer, she knew she found the perfect person to bring to campus.

“She truly is a marvelous storyteller and has lived a fascinating life,” Willemin says. “Her presentations are entertaining and enlightening and also very energizing. Haben creates a strong connection with her audience through innovative communication, which is fascinating because she is deafblind.”

Along with being the first deafblind person to graduate Harvard Law, Girma was also recognized by President Barack Obama as a Champion of Change. She’s also received the Helen Keller Achievement Award and was listed on Forbes 30 under 30 list.

She also released a best-selling book. “Haben: The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law,” has been featured in the New York Times, Oprah Magazine, People, The Wall Street Journal and the Today Show. She will be signing copies of her book after her presentation.

The title of her presentation is “People with Disabilities Drive Innovation.” People with disabilities represent the largest minority group, numbering one billion worldwide. Organizations that prioritize accessibility, benefit by gaining access to a much larger user base, improving the experience for both disabled and non-disabled users, and facilitating further innovation.

When talking about her life, Girma says that disability is not something one overcomes. Stories that claim successful people with disabilities overcame their disabilities are misleading. The barriers exist not in the person, but in the physical, social and digital environment, she says. 

“Every single one of us has the power to remove barriers,” Girma says. “Whether we’re a first-year student or faculty member, our actions and inactions affect the accessibility of our community. 

“People attending the talk will gain insights on identifying and removing barriers to make communities more inclusive.” 

According to Girma, a vast majority of students face access barriers in school. Her success is an example of what is possible when schools invest in accessibility. 

She says that one of the reasons she became the first deafblind graduate from Harvard Law School, was because they invested in accessibility. And while pioneering her way through the unknown was exhausting, it forced her to engage in her education more deeply that the average student.

“Harvard chose to engage in an interactive process to develop solutions to each new challenge,” Girma says. “A 100 years ago the school would have excluded me simply because I’m a woman. It’s the community, not the disability, that creates barriers, and it’s up to the community to dismantle barriers.” 

For Willemin and the rest of ADS, they are excited to bring Haben to come to campus, and hopes the students enjoy her presentation, because she is a very engaging speaker with a fantastic sense of humor.

Willemin is also hoping that listening to Girma journey and lessons of inclusion will speak to Towson University’s campus community. 

“Haben describes in her book, her journey across the world is a quest for connection and belonging, which are needs we all share,” Willemin says. “We all want to be included, which is why promoting inclusion as a key value at Towson University is so important.”

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: Diverse and Inclusive Campus.