The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Haben Girma

The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.
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The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.
Haben Girma with Matthew Allen, the owner/operator of Maui Surf Academy in Encinitas, California. (Photo: Tom Kaestner)

Haben Girma with Matthew Allen, the owner/operator of Maui Surf Academy in Encinitas, California. (Photo: Tom Kaestner)

Haben Girma is deaf-blind, and the first such person to have graduated from Harvard Law School. Now, she's using her law degree to make sure the Internet is as surf-able for people like her as it is for people who can see and hear.

Raised by refugee parents from Eritrea and Ethiopia, Haben grew up in Oakland, California. She and her older brother, who is also deaf-blind, went through childhood with her parents telling her about what life in Eritrea was like during the nation's 30-year struggle for independence from Ethiopia. "My family's stories," she says, "taught me patience and resilience at an early age, inspiring my disability rights advocacy in the United States."

The move to America allowed many things for Haben, including the chance to go to college. At Lewis & Clark, she frequented the dorms' dining halls just like the other students. But unlike the other students, she didn't know what would end up on her plate—she couldn't read the menu, or even hear it if someone read it to her. She had to just hold her plate out and let servers plop whatever onto it. She knew what she'd gotten only once she sat down and started eating.

"I live and operate in a world that's designed for people who can see and hear, and I figured this would just be another thing I would have to deal with," Haben said during a TEDx talk, "like not being able to drive, or not being able to watch the Grammys, or people not knowing how to communicate with someone who is deaf-blind."

"Occasionally there are individuals or organizations who are not willing to make accommodations for people with disabilities," she went on. "And there's that decision: Do you just deal and let it go? Or do you do something about it? And those menus at that cafeteria were a pivotal moment for me when I decided I should do something."

Thinking not only of herself, but of future students who would use the Lewis & Clark cafeteria and need the daily menu emailed to them so that they could print and read it in Braille, the 19-year-old Haben told the cafeteria manager that if he didn't provide her with this reasonable accommodation, she would sue.

She felt a bit strident for complaining about something like access to a menu, considering that when Haben's mother was her age, she was dealing with things like having to walk two weeks straight to reach a refugee camp in Sudan. But Haben was starting to develop her vision for becoming an advocate, "even if it was just one other blind student that came after me."

Once she taught the cafeteria staff about the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), things changed. Haben got the menu in her email inbox daily so that she could know exactly where to go to get what kind of food.

"Schools nowadays admit students with disabilities, and that's great," Haben says. "Access goes beyond the schoolhouse gate. We need access to online learning tools, to math and science courses, to study-abroad programs, and yes, even dessert menus."

Haben had grown up thinking she wanted to become a teacher. But when she realized she could help more people by holding them to America's legal standards, she decided to go to Harvard Law School. While earning her J.D., she interned at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and at the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. She was also involved with Harvard's Black Law Students Association and competed on the university's ballroom dance team.

We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.

By her third year, Business Insider had named her among Harvard Law School's 20 most impressive students. Not long before she graduated, the White House honored her as a "Champion of Change." More recently, Haben gave the introductory remarks during the White House's celebration of the ADA's 25th anniversary.

Today, Haben is a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a non-profit in Berkeley, California. The victory of which she's proudest came in a lawsuit, National Federation of the Blind. v. Scribd, the second case to rule that Internet-based companies must comply with the ADA. (The first was National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix.)

Scribd, an e-book giant, hadn't coded their materials to work with the software that blind people use to read books. When the company refused to comply with requests to provide access to blind people, Haben argued in a federal court that they had to, to comply with the ADA. The judge agreed with her.

The implications for this element in the ADA—which was written and passed into law in 1990, well before widespread Internet use—are huge given how much of the Internet remains inaccessible to people with disabilities.

When asked what else she hopes to contribute to disability rights before she retires, she replies: "Retire? I will stop advocating only when our world is finally free of inequality."

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