Inside HLS: News and Views From Campus:

A Self-Advocate Is Now Also a Legal Advocate

Launching a career at the intersection of law, education and civil rights

Haben Girma with her guide dog, Maxine

Credit: Kathleen DooherHaben Girma with her guide dog, Maxine

When Haben Girma ’13 was in college at Lewis & Clark, she had to sol ve a problem that few other students have faced. As a deaf-blind student with very limited sight and hearing, she had a hard time figuring out the food stations in her school’s cafeteria. As she explained in a speech on Jan. 16, 2012, at the Perkins School for the Blind, she came up with a plan where she would be emailed the menu each day for each station and could pick her destination accordingly, instead of just taking whatever was put on her plate. But the manager sent the email only about half the time. When she wrote to him to complain, he responded, as she described in her speech, “that the cafeteria was very busy, that they were doing me a big favor, and that I should stop complaining and be more appreciative.” At that point, Girma turned to the law: “I explained that Title III of the ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities; if the cafeteria refused to do this, I would sue.” The manager found her during mealtime the next day and apologized, and from then on she received the menus as promised.

For Girma, the story is a good illustration of the types of issues people in the disabled community often deal with. You must be a self-advocate and come up with creative solutions to the problems you face, she says. If that fails, then the law can be a strong ally. “The legal system is a last resort,” she says. A lot of people just need to be “educated about the best techniques for making something accessible. But if you get into a situation where someone is not willing to make something accessible, then the legal system is there to make sure that you’re treated as a full and equal person.”

Girma’s parents and teachers taught her from an early age that her life need not be limited by her disabilities—that each problem had a solution. “My parents tried very hard to make sure I had access to everything, and consequently I grew up thinking I could have access to everything,” she says. At her local public school in Oakland, Calif., she learned sign language and Braille. She tried rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, biking and dance. Yet her parents initially balked when, during high school, Girma told them she wanted to volunteer in Mali with a group building schools. “I was 15 and I was traveling outside the country without family, without anyone I knew very well, really,” she says. “And it was amazing. It really helped develop my confidence. If I can go build a school in West Africa, I can go to law school.”

At HLS, Girma continued her undaunted ways. With her guide dog, Maxine, she made her way around Cambridge from her off-campus apartment to classes, restaurants, and, sometimes, salsa dances, and traveled by public transportation into Boston. She recently returned from a trip to China, organized by the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and Renmin Law School, where she met with members of the disability law and education community in Beijing, including the principal of the Beijing School for the Blind (the sole school of its kind in a city of 20 million people). She talked with him about the fact that deaf-blind children receive no education in China, and showed him how deaf-blind students can be taught sign language through touching the signer’s hands. (During the trip, she also climbed the Great Wall, felt some of the architectural features of the Summer Palace and took in what she called the “ultimate travel experience that requires neither sight nor hearing”: Beijing’s thick smog.)

Girma, as the first deaf-blind student to attend HLS, developed some of her own strategies to do the reading, take the classes and participate in public events. She received all readings in a digital format and either listened to them on her computer or read them on a Braille display. For classes, Girma came up with the idea of having voice transliterators in the back of the room who would narrate the discussion for her, and their voices would transmit from their microphones into her earphones. Girma called this system “absolutely critical,” especially for capturing the quick back and forth of the Socratic method. In quiet situations she can converse with people by listening to them with an amplification set. She used to try to avoid noisy situations—until she thought of pairing a Bluetooth keyboard with her Braille display. People can type in sentences, and the words pop up in Braille for Girma to read. “This system has let me communicate everywhere,” she says, “from the loudest dance club to HLS receptions.” At an HLS professional networking event, Jody Steiner, Harvard’s coordinator of services for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, served as Girma’s interpreter and invited attorneys over to talk with her via the keyboard setup. Girma also used the Bluetooth setup at a recent White House reception, where she chatted via typing and Braille with Stevie Wonder about his work and hers, and the cause of their vision loss—for both, damage to their optic nerves. (Girma was recognized by the White House as a “champion of change” in the field of education.)

This technology and others made Girma’s experience at the law school more seamless than it otherwise would have been. And she points out that the issue of technology—and whether or not schools make it easily available to disabled students—is at the legal frontier of disability rights. “Schools are using more and more technology, which is great,” she says. “The problem is, sometimes they’re not thinking about access for students with disabilities. Accessibility is not the cherry on top of the sundae—it should really be something you think about from the start.”

This intersection of law, education and civil rights is exactly where Girma wants to build her career. Her favorite class at the law school was Robert Mnookin’s (’68) Negotiation Workshop, because it helped prepare her for her future work of talking with schools—and nudging them when necessary—about making their programs more accessible for people with disabilities. She spent a summer working for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in Boston, examining cases on a variety of issues, from special education to bullying to English language learners. For the next two years, funded by a Skadden Fellowship, she will be working at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, Calif., where she will focus on making digital instructional materials more accessible for disabled students at the college level. She is passionate about the power of both education and law to make a positive impact, and sees a natural connection between the two disciplines. “A lawyer’s job is always an educator, an educator who has the potential to file complaints if people refuse to learn.”