By Cynthia Hubert
Haben Girma surfs and salsa dances. She scaled an iceberg in Alaska. She graduated from Harvard Law School and wrote a memoir that became a bestseller.
She also is deaf and blind.
Girma has defied the low expectations sometimes assigned to disabled people and has made championing equal opportunities the focus of her life.
An internationally renowned disability-rights advocate, Girma will bring her remarkable story to Sacramento State as headliner for the Green and Gold Speaker series at noon Feb. 25 in the University Ballroom.
The daughter of East African refugees, Girma was born without hearing or sight, challenges that did not impede her achievement. After receiving her early education in the Bay Area, she attended and graduated with honors from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. In 2013, she became the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.
Girma used Braille versions of textbooks and other written materials, along with other alternative learning tools, to navigate law school.
Communicating with Girma involves people wishing to speak with her using a wireless keybord to type their information. The keybord is connected to a computer that turns what is typed into a Braille printout that Girma reads before speaking her response. The system was developed with the help of one of Girma's friends while they were in college.
Following graduation, Girma worked as a lawyer at the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley. There, she helped win a groundbreaking case against Scribd, a digital lending library. The courts affirmed that online businesses like Scribd must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against disabled people in all areas of public life.
Girma credits the ADA with helping to pave the way toward her education and accomplishments. In 2015, she received accolades from President Obama at a White House ceremony marking the ADA's 25th anniversary.
These days Girma focuses on accessibility and diversity training, consulting and professional speaking.
“She’s brilliant,” said Beth Lesen, Sac State’s dean of students and associate vice president for Student Affairs. “She is an international expert on adaptive technology. Her expertise has been sought by more than one president of the United States, and our students deserve access to that kind of brilliance.
“Besides being an openly disabled powerhouse of a disability rights advocate, she is also a woman of color who has accomplished remarkable things in this world and is still very much on the rise.”
Girma’s message of inclusivity makes her a perfect choice for Sac State’s Green and Gold Speaker series, said Mary Lee Vance, director of Sac State’s Services for Students with Disabilities, one of the event’s sponsors. The speaker series features scholars, artists, writers and other notable leaders whose work reflects the University’s commitment to fostering a welcoming environment.
“Haben is perfect for Green and Gold,” Vance said. “She’s a very articulate and thoughtful speaker, and her message is all about universal access and inclusiveness.”
Girma will appear with her service dog, Mylo, who has traveled globally with her. After she speaks, she will urge the audience to interact with her by approaching the stage and typing their questions or comments into her computer.
“Her protocol is very simple,” Vance said. “Just grab the keyboard and start typing.”
Girma’s appearance on campus will resonate, particularly during Black History Month, Lesen said.
“Bringing Ms. Girma to Sacramento State to share with our community all that she has accomplished is, I believe, a real gift,” Lesen said.
The event is wheelchair accessible, and American Sign Language interpretation and captioning will be provided. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for any other necessary accommodations.
Information about other campus activities celebrating Black History Month can be found online.