The fourth interview in the IDAP interview series features Haben Girma, the first deafblind student to graduate from the prestigious Harvard Law School. Haben has been recognized as a White House “Champion of Change” by the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. She has also been recognized as a Forbes 30 under 30 leader, and a BBC Women of Africa Hero. She is also the recipient of the prestigious Skadden Fellowship instituted by the Skadden Foundation. Haben had the singular honour of introducing President Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2015 and has also received recognition from former American President Bill Clinton.
An internationally acclaimed accessibility consultant, Haben has worked tirelessly to promote equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in the United States of America and has also delivered talks on removing access barriers for students with disabilities. In addition to her exemplary work on accessibility, Haben also enjoys salsa dancing and surfing.
This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and Anusha Reddy, members of the IDAP Team.
1. First off, would you mind describing to our readers the precise nature of your disability?
I’m Deafblind, which means I have limited vision and hearing.
2. One of the most interesting aspects of your background is that your family migrated to the United States from Eritrea before you were born. Based on the educational experience that you have acquired in the U.S., would you say that disabled students who study in developed countries enjoy significant and substantial benefits in comparison to their counterparts studying in developing countries?
It really depends on the community. Students with disabilities in inclusive communities have higher success rates than those living in inaccessible communities. There are many communities that are not inclusive, unfortunately. I know many students with disabilities who have struggled for access in developing countries. The culture of a community affects access more than a community’s resources, though.
3. In India, access to adaptive technologies and software such as Open Book, JAWS and Braille displays is limited as they are exorbitantly priced. Most visually challenged students here come from low-income families which makes it impossible for them to purchase laptops with the requisite software. As an expert in accessible technology, can you recommend any alternate open source or low cost adaptive technologies for disabled students which can help them compete on a footing of equality with their able-bodied counterparts?
Every student is unique and would benefit from an individual assessment. A great solution for one student will likely be ineffective for another. Depending on the resources available to a community, communities may need to explore low tech solutions such as readers and scribes. Communities could also partner with organizations with more resources that could help fund the purchase of assistive technology.
4. In India, most students with disabilities do not attend mainstream schools with their non-disabled peers; instead, they attend separate schools for the blind and/or schools for the deaf. An argument generally put forth by mainstream schools for refusing in take of blind students is that they do not have the resources or requisite expertise to cater to the needs of a blind and/or deaf student. In your opinion and from your experience of studying in public schools in Oakland, how can one refute these arguments?
I had a very successful mainstreaming experience. I attended public schools that hired teachers to work with blind students in an inclusive setting. Mainstreaming benefits the entire community. Schools that choose to be inclusive take steps to train their teachers to work with students with disabilities. While a school may not currently know how to teach a student with a disability, the school leaders can choose to develop the necessary skills to support all students.
5. You pursued your legal education at Harvard Law School – an institution which prides itself on its high standards of academic rigour. One legitimate concern that most disabled students factor into their analysis, while choosing the institution to pursue their higher studies in, is that, since their disability anyway requires them to work a lot harder than their counterparts, they would be better off going to a school whose academic requirements can be more easily met. For instance, at a university like Harvard, one is required to complete highly demanding reading and writing assignments in most courses. Since a disabled student is likely to take more time to complete an assignment than her counterparts because of the challenges that her disability poses, the argument goes, it would be better for her to study at an institution where the coursework is more manageable. How would you respond to this concern?
Every student is different. Some students with disabilities do not need extra time to complete assignments, so it depends on the student. Students who do need more time can request additional time from their schools. Harvard grants additional time to students who need it as a disability accommodation. Students and their communities should try to explore every possible success strategy.
6. In the last few years, law schools have begun attaching a lot of importance to teaching law from a multidisciplinary perspective. The initial leg of one’s law school life is often spent studying subjects that involve quantitative and visual analysis. What strategies did you adopt for studying subjects and topics that require you to grasp visual content such as graphs, charts and the like?
Law schools, like other schools, should ensure visual information is made accessible to blind students. Schools can write text descriptions or create tactile graphs to make visual information accessible.
7. Students with disabilities find it difficult to seamlessly take notes while simultaneously paying attention in class and, as a result, a majority of them record classroom discussions/lectures and listen to the recordings at a later point to prepare notes. However, a lot of our students have found this practice to be futile and time consuming. Can you share with us techniques you used to participate in classroom discussions while simultaneously recording your key learning from the class?
My law school provided a notetaker who would email me notes after each class. Schools in India could similarly set up a system of providing note taking services for students with disabilities.
Schools should compensate notetakers when they have the resources to do so.When first seeking notetakers, schools should collect sample notes from each potential notetaker for the disabled student to pick the notetaker with skills that best meet the student’s needs.
The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read our other interviews here.