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A Champion for Deafblind Communication

Haben Girma /google imagesBy Deborah Kendrick

The 2012 implementation of the section of the 2010 Communications and Video Accessibility Act has created a sea change in the culture. Because of it, tens of thousands of deafblind individuals have received equipment and training, enabling them to communicate in a new way. In fact, it has allowed to blossom a whole new family of people with disabilities, many of whom were all too silent and invisible before now.

We will be hearing from many other deafblind people in the years ahead, but one remarkable person who is blazing a trail deserves special recognition. President Barack Obama dubbed her a “Champion of Change” at a 2013 White House ceremony, Business Insider named her one of 2013’s “most impressive students,” and she holds a prestigious position as a Scadden law fellow at a Berkeley, Calif., law firm.

Haben and Stevie Wonder at the White House/Google ImagesHaben (rhymes with robin) Girma is only 26. She is the first deaf and blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School, and she’s not losing any time resting on her abundant laurels.

While at Harvard, she also was active in the Black Law Students Association and ballroom dance team, but she pursued a law degree because she wanted to lay claim to equal rights and access for herself and all people with disabilities.

Last July, she filed a lawsuit with Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind and others against Scribd, an online reading service with about 40 million titles, because that collection is not accessible to people using screen-reading software.

Eight months later, on March 19, William K. Sessions III, a senior judge on the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, issued the opinion that entities hosting websites and apps are bound by the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other words, it was a Haben Girma victory!

And now she’s taking on TED Talks because that treasure trove of presentations on all things related to technology, entertainment and design, among other great ideas, is not accessible to people who can’t hear the voices.

Haben and Stevie Wonder at the White House/Google ImagesShe had been invited to give a TED talk at the January 2014 conference in Baltimore. Her topic, of course, was disability rights. But when she logged in to review the recommended talk for preparation, she realized that she couldn’t watch it. How does she “watch” a YouTube video? The same way she watches movies, plays and television shows: by reading the captions or transcriptions (sometimes typed nonstop by friends) on her BrailleNote Apex electronic braille display.

After that incident, Girma persuaded TED to caption her talk so that deaf and hard-of-hearing friends can access it, but she wants all TED Talks to be accessible -- in more than 100 languages.

Are you having trouble imagining such a young woman? She is not a marvel, a paragon, a robot. Well, OK, maybe she is a marvel. And she also is -- full disclosure -- my friend.

A personal incident may shed some light on her talents. Last summer, she and I were among four people spending an evening at my friend Bryan Bashin’s home in Berkeley, Calif. Gathered around the dining room table, amid wine and Thai food, all four of us could be seen typing frenetically on various keyboards.

Haben Girma with guide dog Maxine/Kathleen DooherActually, Haben was the only one not typing. Her hands flew back and forth across her braille display, reading the words we typed and spoke, taking part in an intellectually engaging conversation that was as intense as any I’ve entertained.

Haben’s braille display and wireless keyboard facilitate face-to-face conversations with anyone who can type. Words typed on the keyboard show up on the display, and Haben replies in her clear, almost musical, voice.

To add yet another extraordinary dimension, our friend Michelle has a vocal complication (she explained it as being given the choice between breathing and speaking, and she chose to breathe) that makes it difficult for some of us to understand her words. In yet one more stroke of brilliance in an already magical evening, Michelle began silently typing her words to Haben, so that Haben could voice them to Bryan and me on her behalf.

Sound complicated? Tedious? Exhausting? Believe me when I say that it was none of the above. It was an energizing, thrilling exchange of ideas, anecdotes, information and fun.

While at Harvard, she also was active in the Black Law Students Association and ballroom dance team, but she pursued a law degree because she wanted to lay claim to equal rights and access for herself and all people with disabilities.

Knowing that Bryan and I have been friends for many years, Haben developed an impish refrain that evening whenever there was an inkling of a lull in the conversation.

“Bryan? Deborah?” she would trill. “Tell me more stories you have shared!”

We’d pour the wine, pass the curry and continue our philosophizing. I’m not sure whether Haben’s appetite for stories was satisfied that night, but I am sure that she will be creating many of her own in the years ahead. The Champion for Change has only warmed up, and she is capable of many a legal and cultural marathon.

No matter how long we have been in this disability arena, we can all learn new things and have the potential of being dazzled and amazed.

Haben Girma and other deafblind individuals have dazzled and amazed me for sure. With new access to communication tools, how many more previously silent and invisible stars are soon to shine?

Deborah Kendrick is a newspaper columnist, editor and poet. She can be reached at

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