Lewis & Clark alumna Haben Girma ’10 is widely known as the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School.
Deafblindness is a relatively rare disability that affects 2% of the global population and exists on a spectrum. In her own life, Girma can only hear some high frequencies and has a very limited amount of sight.
In an interview conducted via email, Girma reflected on her time at LC. She also expanded on educational institutions that need to change how they interact with and accommodate persons with disabilities.
“Many schools still treat access for disabled students as special, separate and extra,” Girma said via email. “The charity model is the wrong model. Schools need to adapt the physical, digital, and social environment to create an inclusive community for disabled students.”
Girma described some of the influences in her life that inspired her to become a speaker and educator on disability justice.
“As a Deafblind student in college, I witnessed advocates using the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to change social attitudes… Impressed by the success of these advocates, I felt inspired to join them,” Girma said. “Back then, and even now, I encountered many barriers in the digital world. Not because of my disability, but because of attitudes among tech developers that trivialize access for disabled people.”
While at LC, Girma had an experience that fueled her desire to become a lawyer. Girma discusses this incident in her TED Talk, “Why I work to remove access barriers for students with disabilities.” When Girma attended LC, Fields Dining Hall had about five different food stations that each served a different meal. The cafeteria visibly displayed a menu for each station, but these menus were not accessible for blind students. The cafeteria staff offered to read her the menus at each station, but even if they did, she would not be able to hear it.
After reaching out to the dining hall’s general manager about accommodating her access to the menu, they agreed to email her a copy of the menu at the beginning of each week. From there, Girma was able to use a screen reader to access the menu.
However, the staff frequently forgot to send her the menu. This left her unable to choose what she was going to eat. Instead, she would pick a line at random and take whatever was served to her by the staff. She would then take it back to a table and discover what she was going to eat.
On the occasions when the cafeteria staff would send her the menu, “life was delicious.” However, even though she was sent the menu infrequently, she decided to put up with it for a few months. “This would just be another thing I would have to deal with,” Girma said. Then, something in her shifted.
“Those menus at that cafeteria was a pivotal moment for me, when I decided that I should do something,” Girma said. “For myself and for future blind students.”
Girma went back to the dining hall manager and explained that she deserved access to the menus like all the other students. The manager told her that the cafeteria was very busy and he was doing her a big favor by sending her the menus, so she should stop complaining and be more appreciative.
This confrontation did not solve Girma’s problem, so she tried something new: She researched her rights as a person with disabilities. Girma found that the ADA, which was passed by the United States Congress in 1990, protected the rights of people with disabilities against this form of discrimination. The ADA maintains that businesses are required to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, and the school cafeteria emailing Girma a menu fell under this protection.
With this knowledge, Girma went back to the cafeteria manager and informed him that providing her access to the menu was not a favor, but a requirement by law. She told him that if he would not send her the menu consistently, she would sue them. Girma later admitted that she did not actually know how to sue someone nor did she have the funds to hire a lawyer.
Girma recalls being scared that others would find her trouble accessing a menu too trivial.
“Lewis & Clark had done an excellent job at giving me my course materials and textbooks, my exams in braille … Blind students in other colleges struggle to get basic access to books, even today,” Girma said. “So who was I to complain?”
However, she was excited by the possibility of making the school a better place.
“I had a vision of helping other people,” Girma said. “I had a vision of joining the civil rights movement, maybe even becoming a lawyer.”
The cafeteria’s attitude changed after the ADA policies were brought to their attention. Girma’s actions “changed the culture in the cafeteria” as well as the trajectory of her own life.
This culture shift can be seen in Fields Dining Hall today. Since Girma’s experience, the Bon’s menu has become available online. According to Ryan Jensen, the general manager of Bon Appétit Food Service, this development was made with accessibility in mind.
“I know that Bon Appétit’s corporate team worked with the Office of Civil Rights – U.S. Department of Education to audit our custom cafebonappetit.com websites to ensure they are accessible.” Jensen said in an email interview.
According to Jensen, the Bon currently works directly with the Office of Student Accessibility to ensure that their services are accessible to students with disabilities.
Girma went on to work at Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit organization in Berkeley, California. She was named a White House Champion of Change by President Obama, and published a memoir in 2020 titled, “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.” Girma now works as a consultant and educator on accessibility, leadership and diversity.