I’ve known Haben Girma for years and got to record her oral history for the DVP in 2015. I was delighted to interview her again about her new memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. For more about Haben, check out her website and follow her on Twitter: @HabenGirma
Tell me a little about yourself!
I was born in Oakland, California. Because of our strong disability community in the Bay Area, I grew up with access to more opportunities than the average student with disabilities. The public schools and community organizations provided braille lessons, cane travel instructions, rock climbing classes for blind students, and so much more. The Bay Area still has barriers, though, and I faced numerous barriers as a Deafblind student in a sighted, hearing world.
What led you to write a memoir about your life at this time?
As an advocate I want to use every skill I have to increase accessibility for people with disabilities. Each story in my memoir was carefully chosen to advance the reader’s understanding of the complex ways in which ableism touches every aspect of life. The book is a series of fun, engaging stories that advocate for the removal of barriers. I’m hopeful that readers will feel moved to address the barriers in their own communities.
Writing a book is a long process. Some weeks I would write every day, others none at all. After writing each story I would spend days revising it. Editing required more time than writing.
In your introduction you write, “Unlike most memoirs, these stories are written in present tense. Hindsight may be 20/20, but 20/20 is not how I experience this ever-surprising world.” Why is it important for you to write in the present tense? What do you want the present tense to convey to the readers?
The present tense has a way of making stories feel more real and relevant compared to the past tense. Ableism is very much still a present day issue, and I wanted to write in a way that would energize readers to become advocates.
In chapter two of your book you mention how Nancy Drew is one of your heroes and I think you two are similar in that you’re both in one adventure after another. Who else would you consider your heroes right now?
Maysoon Zayid is one of my heroes. I admire how she employs comedy and strong storytelling to address ableism, racism, sexism, and the other forms of injustice in our world. I want to be like her when I grow up!
Like you, I advocated for myself at a young age and realized how advocacy impacts an entire community. What are some issues or topics you want to advocate for in the future that you haven’t worked on before?
I want to read your early advocacy stories! Do you have plans for a memoir, Alice? One issue I want to work on is the limited communication across disability groups. We have so much to learn from each other, yet many people with disabilities rarely engage in meaningful cross-disability dialog. The Disability Visibility Project sparks many cross-disability conversations, and I’m grateful for that.
I really enjoyed your stories from childhood. It’s so important for disabled youth to see themselves reflected. What do you hope young DeafBlind people will get out of reading your book?
I can’t tell you how many times people have assumed, “She made it because her parents paid for tutors and tech.” The school paid for my tech. My parents struggled as immigrants and so much of the education system was a mystery to us. We didn’t know that some families hire tutors to prepare their students for the SAT. I didn’t have tutors. I had to figure it out on my own, with tips from public school teachers and counselors along the way. I dream of a future where students can just be students instead of having to juggle the roles of student, teacher, and advocate. Until we remove all barriers from our schools, this book can help teach students to develop their advocacy skills and find the solutions that work for them.
What has it been like promoting your book and reading all the positive reviews? What feedback have you heard from people so far at your book events?
We had one book event last month, and we have one coming up Saturday Sept 7 at Book Passage in San Francisco. A lot of readers have sent me messages through social media telling me how much the book has moved them. Each message gives me a little thrill. I still can’t quite believe my book is finally out there for readers. The most valuable gift we can give someone is our time. To all the readers who have taken the time to read or listen to my book, thank you!
What’s next for you when it comes to new adventures and telling your story?
I plan to continue writing, speaking, and advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. As far as we’ve come, the fight for equality is not over.
Haben Girma advocates for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama named her a White House Champion of Change. She received the Helen Keller Achievement Award, and a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Chancellor Angela Merkel have all honored Haben. Haben believes disability is an opportunity for innovation. She travels the world teaching the benefits of choosing inclusion.