The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law


By Haben Girma

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The incredible life story of Haben Girma, the first Deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, and her amazing journey from isolation to the world stage.

Haben grew up spending summers with her family in the enchanting Eritrean city of Asmara. There, she discovered courage as she faced off against a bull she couldn’t see, and found in herself an abiding strength as she absorbed her parents’ harrowing experiences during Eritrea’s thirty-year war with Ethiopia. Their refugee story inspired her to embark on a quest for knowledge, traveling the world in search of the secret to belonging. She explored numerous fascinating places, including Mali, where she helped build a school under the scorching Saharan sun. Her many adventures over the years range from the hair-raising to the hilarious.

Haben defines disability as an opportunity for innovation. She learned non-visual techniques for everything from dancing salsa to handling an electric saw. She developed a text-to-braille communication system that created an exciting new way to connect with people. Haben pioneered her way through obstacles, graduated from Harvard Law, and now uses her talents to advocate for people with disabilities.

Haben takes readers through a thrilling game of blind hide-and-seek in Louisiana, a treacherous climb up an iceberg in Alaska, and a magical moment with President Obama at The White House. Warm, funny, thoughtful, and uplifting, this captivating memoir is a testament to one woman’s determination to find the keys to connection.

“This autobiography by a millennial Helen Keller teems with grace and grit.” — O Magazine

A profoundly important memoir.” — The Times

** As featured in The Wall Street Journal, People, and on The TODAY Show ** A New York Times “New & Noteworthy” Pick ** An O Magazine “Book of the Month” Pick ** A Publishers Weekly Bestseller **


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I’m Deafblind. Because I can’t see faces or recognize voices, every conversation needs to start with a name. My friends begin conversations like this: “It’s Cam,” “It’s Gordon,” or if someone is drinking, “It’s me.”

My name is Haben. “Ha” like ha-ha, and “ben” like benevolent.

Deafblindness encompasses a spectrum of vision and hearing loss, from the guy squinting at conversations signed three feet in front of his face, to the woman pounding the pavement with her white cane while analyzing traffic sounds through her hearing aids. I was born Deafblind. At age twelve I could walk into a room and see the indistinct outline of a person sitting on top of the long, blurred shape of a couch. That image fades more and more every year. Now, walking into a room is like stepping into an abstract painting of fuzzy formations and colorful splashes.

My hearing follows a similar path. I was born with poor low frequency hearing and good high frequency hearing. Speech intelligence relies on high frequency consonants, so I intuitively learned to speak at a high vocal register. At age twelve I could hear my parents if they sat next to me and spoke slowly and clearly. Now, we communicate with the assistance of technology, such as a keyboard paired with a braille computer.

Communities designed with just one kind of person in mind isolate those of us defying their narrow definition of personhood. This book takes readers on a quest for connection across the world, including building a school under the scorching Malian sun, climbing icebergs in Alaska, training with a guide dog in New Jersey, studying law at Harvard, and sharing a magical moment with President Obama at the White House. Unlike most memoirs, the stories here unfold in present tense. Hindsight may be 20/20, but 20/20 is not how I experience this ever-surprising world.

Chapter One

When They Took My Father

Two men in uniforms stand in the aisle of the plane, towering over Daddy. I watch from the seat next to him, straining to see the shadowy figures. Their curt tones trigger the sensation of mosquitos stabbing my skin.

Daddy unbuckles his seatbelt. “I have to go,” he tells me.

The two men escort him off the plane. For the first time in my seven-year-old life, I’m alone.

I stare down the aisle. My field of vision ends at around five feet. A person walks by wheeling a bag. Two kids go by with backpacks.

I sink into my seat and close my eyes. This plane is supposed to take us to London, then another plane will get us back to America. I was born and raised in Oakland, California. Daddy grew up in Ethiopia, so we came here for the summer. My mom and sister plan to enjoy two more weeks of vacation before returning to the United States.

Memories from the summer play through my mind: dancing on the dusty streets with my sister and the neighborhood kids, baking raisin bread with Mommy, swimming in the Red Sea with Daddy…

My eyes open. I stare down the aisle again. No one walks by. Everyone has boarded.

It’s been an hour. Why isn’t he back?

An invisible chain of tension squeezes my throat. The pain climbs up my neck to my head. I take deep breaths, struggling to hold on to hope.

An announcement blasts through the PA system. The sound washes over me in incoherent murmurs, accelerating my pulse to a dizzying clip.

All my life I’ve heard stories of Ethiopian soldiers tearing families apart. Soldiers threw Mommy in jail just for refusing to sing a song. Ethiopia claimed the neighboring country Eritrea, and for thirty years Eritreans fought for independence. Daddy was born and raised in Ethiopia, but his father, Grandpa Kidane, is Eritrean. During the war, Eritreans living in Ethiopia became targets. The war ended in 1991, though. It’s supposed to be safe for Eritreans visiting Ethiopia. Why did they take Daddy?

The thought demolishes me like a kick to the stomach. I gasp for air as the pain spreads through my body.

Why didn’t our American citizenship stop them from separating us?

My eyes study his empty seat. He’s gone. I touch the seat, even though I already know. He’s gone. My hand feels a seatbelt. His seatbelt. The long smooth strap contrasts with the sharp metal buckle, the buckle that failed to keep him safe.

Strong vibrations shake the jet. The engines rattle every nerve from the soles of my feet to the back of my neck.

Burning pain tightens around my chest, climbing all the way up to my cheekbones. Breathing hurts. My nose labors for air as I fight against the suffocating fear.

I need Daddy. Who will help me navigate the world? I don’t know how to find my next flight when we land in London. I don’t even know the international number to reach Mommy.

A flight attendant looms over my seat. Mumble, mumble, mumble. She drops to my level. Mumble, mumble, mumble.

Terror clamps my mouth shut. Pain immobilizes every muscle. The only movement comes from my tears.

The flight attendant speaks again. Mumble, mumble, mumble.

I stare at her, begging her to hear my thoughts. Bring back Daddy.

She rises to her full height, turns, and disappears.

Another flight attendant stands at the head of the aisle. From her gestures I know she’s going over the safety procedures. Too late. My life has already crashed.

My hands squeeze the seatbelt Daddy used. That’s when I discover moisture on the metal buckle.

A person rushes up the aisle, lunging into the seat next to mine. He’s back!

I take a small breath, and pain shoots through my jaw as my body struggles to relax.

Nothing can truly shield me from the violence of the world. Not my family, not American citizenship, not even self-defense classes for blind kids. At any moment, the forces of the world could take the lives of the people I love. They could even snatch mine.

When we arrive in London, Daddy leads the way to our next gate. We settle into our seats, waiting for our flight to America. I gather the courage to finally ask, “Why did they take you off the plane?”

“I don’t know. It’s okay now, though.”

I shake my head. “Tell me. I can handle it.”

He picks up a magazine from the seat next to him and flips through the pages. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t understand it.”

“That’s okay…Then what happened?”

He sighs. “They asked me if I was the son of Kidane. I told them yes. Then they asked me to fill out some paperwork. The plane was about to leave, so when the guy wasn’t looking I just ran for it.”

My eyes water. “I’m glad you made it back.”

He wraps his arm around my shoulders. “Me, too, Habeniye.”

Chapter Two

The Expeditions Begin

“I hate to say this, kiddo, but you’re failing the class.”

My Deaf ears doubt what they hear. I look up at Ms. Scott, a teacher I trust and admire. We’re in the resource room for blind students at Bret Harte Middle School. The classroom offers the school’s blind students—all seven of us—braille books, braille typewriters, a braille embosser, computers with assistive software, magnifiers, even braille versions of Monopoly and UNO. We take turns working in the resource room for one period each day. The rest of the time we attend regular, mainstream classes with our nondisabled classmates.

Ms. Scott and her assistants help mainstream teachers with accessibility, converting reading assignments to braille, audio, or large print, depending on the needs of the student. They also provide blindness training: identifying coins by touch, folding cash bills to tell them apart, and using the internet with magnification or text-to-speech software.

Ms. Scott sits down next to me and tries again. “Mr. Smith asked me to braille your marking period report. I’m going to braille it for you, but I figured we’d talk about it now. It says you haven’t completed many of your homework assignments.”

“But I did all the assignments, all the homework.” My stomach twists with indignation.

“I’m just telling you what it says on the paper.”

“I always do my homework. I’ve never missed an assignment. Maybe this is someone else’s report?”

“I’m sorry, Haben, but it has your name on it.”

Kicking the ground, I sit up straighter in my chair. “Then I don’t know. This doesn’t make any sense. I did all the work.”

“It’s okay, kiddo. I’m on your team. I know you work hard. Let’s just talk this through. Do you remember not doing at least one assignment?”

“No. I wouldn’t do that.”

“I don’t think you would, either. Why don’t we ask Mr. Smith about this?”

I nod, too anxious to speak. My subconscious buzzes with a warning. Something about Mr. Smith’s class puts me on edge.

“I’ll call and see if he’s in now.” Ms. Scott walks over to her desk. Her voice sounds muffled now as she speaks outside of my hearing range.

My hands drop to the braille book in front of me. Nancy Drew, a brilliant woman with the courage to stride into terrifying situations, is one of my heroes. My fingers glide across the dots, following her on one of her adventures. The story distracts me from the fear clawing at my spine.

Ms. Scott returns to the table. “He’s free now. Shall we head over?”

My jaw clamps shut again. Standing on hesitant legs, I follow her out the door.

She turns left, moving down a hallway with a musty old-building smell. My heart thuds against my ribs as I trudge behind her. We soon cross a courtyard where the breeze carries a whiff of eucalyptus, and the scent reminds me of the decongestant my family uses on miserable, stuffy nose days.

She slows to walk beside me. “How are the cartwheels?”

A small smile flickers on my face. When I told her my dream of finally mastering the cartwheel, she volunteered to help. We spent a whole period at the school gym practicing. Haben, kick your legs higher! Keep your legs straight! Keep trying!

“I can’t quite get my legs straight over my head.”

“You were getting close the other day. Keep practicing. I know you can do it.”

I blush, embarrassed. Another blind student has been cartwheeling since fourth grade. Ms. Scott has known how to cartwheel for more than twenty years. Then there’s me, twelve years old and cartwheel-challenged. “I’ll practice,” I mumble.

Ms. Scott really is a phenomenal teacher, peppering our lessons with all kinds of surprises. Last year she introduced me to hot cider, which tastes divine, and eggnog, which tastes vile. She helped me register with the National Braille and Talking Book Library, and taught me how to order Harry Potter. The middle school has a tiny braille library, so I need access to the national library.

She breezes through Mr. Smith’s open door and stops by his desk. I stop beside her.

Mr. Smith talks as he approaches. His words blur together into an inaudible rumble.

“Are you serious?” Ms. Scott asks.

Mumble, mumble. His response sounds like German. Some of his speech sounds come through, enough to know that he’s speaking. But not enough to identify the words.

“No way!” She bursts into laughter.

My knees tremble. Are they laughing at me? I look from one to the other, straining to hear.

Mr. Smith clears his throat. “So how can I help you?”

“Haben has a question for you,” Ms. Scott tells him.

“Yes?” The tall silhouette stands before me, waiting.

I swallow. “The report says I’m missing assignments, but I did turn in all the assignments.”

“Can I see that?” He takes the paper from Ms. Scott. “There are about ten missing. Did you read and respond to the questions for chapter four?”

“I…I thought you skipped chapter four.”

He gives an inaudible response.

“I’m wondering,” Ms. Scott jumps in. “How do you assign homework?”

“I usually write it on the board, but I read it out loud, too.”

“Okay.” She thinks for a bit. “Are you standing in the front of the room when you read it out loud?”

“It depends on where I am at the time. Sometimes I call out the assignment from my desk.”

“Haben, can you hear him from his desk?”

I shake my head. My seat is at the front of the class facing the board. Mr. Smith usually stands or sits in the front of the class. His desk is all the way in the back of the room near the door.

“So that’s what’s going on. She didn’t know about those assignments because she didn’t hear them.” Ms. Scott’s voice sounds calm, nonjudgmental. “Haben, what are some things you can do to make sure you get the assignment?”

“Umm…I could ask one of the students at the end of class…I could ask Mr. Smith…”

She turns the question to him. “Do you think that could work?”

“Sure. You can come ask me if you have any questions. I do have a question for you, though. Why don’t you use hearing aids?”

“They don’t work for my type of hearing loss. I’ve tried them.” My throat tightens in dread. My audiologist explained that because my hearing loss is the opposite of the typical type of hearing loss, the hearing aids on the market aren’t designed to help me. People believe her, but when they hear it from me they wonder if I’m just being a stubborn preteen.

“Gotcha,” he says.


“Haben,” Ms. Scott says, “did you want to ask about making up those assignments you missed?”

“Is that possible?” My voice rises with hope. “Can I turn them in late and still get credit?”

“Sure. If you finish them by next Friday you can get credit for them.”

“I’ll do it. Thanks.”

Back in the resource room, Ms. Scott takes charge. “All right, kiddo. I’m going to braille this list for you—have a seat.” She walks over to the computer next to the braille embosser. The computer has software that converts print to braille, and then sends that information to an embosser. The embosser punches dots into thick paper, producing braille.

I slip into a chair, fold my arms on the table, and rest my head. The visit with Mr. Smith wiped me out. Apparently, assuming teachers will always give me the information I need leads to failure. If I want to succeed, I’ll have to work to gain access to every visual detail and every spoken word. Every single time.

Three hours later I’m back in Mr. Smith’s history class. Sitting at my desk, my fingers fly across the braille book in front of me. Every line, every word, every letter touches my fingertips and instantly enters my mind. No strain. No pain. The physicality makes reading a whole-body experience.

Part of me knows I’m missing a student reading, and the sound of thirty kids fidgeting in their seats. Thirty faces peering into identical books. Perhaps a few even sneak glances at one another. I know millions of sights and sounds are playing out on the streets of Oakland at this very moment. The sensoryscape continues around the world—the reddish brown of Redwood bark. The radiant glow of Big Ben at night. The majestic roar of Victoria Falls. The swell of voices in Singapore’s streets. Tastes and smells and textures, too. The world’s a steaming sensory stew.

I like my Deafblind world. It’s comfortable, familiar. It doesn’t feel small or limited. It’s all I’ve known; it’s my normal.

Ring! The school bells mark the end of the class. The room bursts into a cacophony of kids scraping chairs, shoving papers into bags, and shouting plans across the room.

Putting my book in my backpack, I get ready to leave. Wait, is there homework? I didn’t hear any homework, so there’s no homework tonight, right? If I didn’t hear it, then it didn’t happen. If I didn’t see it, then it didn’t matter. Right?

My back tenses. When I told Ms. Scott I would ask another student for the homework, I failed to consider how that feels. I don’t have friends here. I don’t feel wanted; I just feel tolerated. Asking someone to tell me the homework will just confirm their low expectations.

Pushing past my dread, I plan to do it anyway. A student sits right behind me, so I turn around in my seat. She’s standing up and preparing to leave. The noise makes it impossible for me to hear her, so I keep it short. “Bye.”

The students leave. The room quiets. I slide out of my seat. Part of me knows I should walk over to the teacher and ask if he assigned any homework. Another part of me wants to escape before he assigns me homework. I don’t want homework, but I don’t want to fall further behind on assignments.

As I approach his desk, I scan the room for a tall figure. Nothing. I stop by his desk. Nothing. Every cell in my body tells me to run. I force myself to use my voice, “Hello?” Nothing.

My knees feel weak. I consider putting my backpack down since I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait. When I told Ms. Scott I would ask for the homework, I failed to consider the emotional drain of trying to find someone when you can’t see or hear them.

A tall figure strides over from the other side of the room. “Are you here for the homework?”

“Yes. Is there an assignment today?”

“Read chapter eighteen and answer questions one through four.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I exit with my shoulders slumped, weighed down by my heavy backpack.

It’s a sighted, hearing classroom, in a sighted, hearing school, in a sighted, hearing society. They designed this environment for people who can see and hear. In this environment, I’m disabled. They place the burden on me to step out of my world and reach into theirs.

Chapter Three


The smell of home-brewed coffee fills the living room of my grandmother’s house in Asmara, Eritrea. The smoke of the roasting coffee beans swirls through the living room and slips out the open windows. After roasting the beans in a pan, Grandma Awiye boils the brew in a jebena, a traditional Eritrean coffeepot. The ceramic vessel has a spherical base, long neck, and a short handle to grasp while pouring the potent liquid.

The room buzzes with the happy chatter of coffee time. I’m twelve years old, sitting on the sofa with my parents. My father’s name is Girma. It’s also my surname. Eritreans and Ethiopians traditionally use the father’s first name for the child’s last name. Girma means “charisma” and is pronounced Ghir-mī (“my”) in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea, and Ghir-ma in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. We pronounce it both ways. My mother’s name is Saba. She’s named after the queen of Sheba, the revered ruler who journeyed to ancient Jerusalem on a quest for knowledge. Legend has it that all Eritreans and Ethiopians descend from King Solomon and the queen of Sheba. People tell me Saba looks like a queen.

The room bursts into uproarious laughter. The sofa cushions shake from my parents’ amusement. The conversation continues, animated voices bouncing from person to person around me.

Seven other family members sit around the room. TT, my nine-year-old sister, assists Grandma Awiye with the coffee. My aunts Roma, Selam, Senait, Hiwet, and Elsa keep the conversations going. Grandma Awiye, Aunt Hiwet, and Uncle Teme live in this house year-round. Elsa now lives in the Netherlands, and the rest of us live in the United States. We try to have family reunions in Asmara every three years.

An aunt laughs, the sound rising and falling like a bird song. It piques my curiosity, leaving me longing to join the conversation. I can’t identify the words in the babble of noise. The speech sounds tangle together like hair strands caught in gum. Try to pull a strand free and another strand gets caught. The mix of languages compounds the problem. Seventy percent is Tigrinya, fifteen percent is Amharic, and the rest is English.

I feel bored. A confusing, I’m-lonely-even-though-I’m-surrounded-by-people bored. I tug on Saba’s arm. “Can I go?”

“No, I want you to stay with me. Why don’t you talk with us?”

“I don’t understand what people are saying.”

“Well then, you should ask. We can explain it to you.”

Frustration bubbles up inside me and threatens to boil over. Memories of the agonizing isolation in middle school flash through my mind. Shifting in my seat, I try to stay calm. “It’s not that simple. I’m missing too much. I don’t even know the topic. Can’t I just get a book?”

On my left, Girma nudges my arm. “Saba just told us she used to call herself an Ethiopian.”

My eyes widen with shock.

“Don’t listen to him,” she says. “I am Eritrean.”

My curiosity craves an explanation. “I know you are Eritrean, but have you ever called yourself an Ethiopian?”

“At school, yes. Because of the war.” Ethiopia claimed control of its small neighbor to the north. Eritrea did not want to be part of Ethiopia, and for thirty years Eritreans fought for independence. The war ended in 1991—two years later, the world recognized Eritrea as an independent country.

Saba continues, “Ethiopians controlled the schools. We had to speak Amharic in school. But at home, we spoke Tigrinya and called ourselves Eritreans.

“When I was a teenager we lived in Mendefera, another city in Eritrea. My father worked as a police officer and they transferred him from Asmara to Mendefera. At the high school there, I was part of a group that traveled around singing songs making fun of the Eritrean freedom fighters.”

My face scrunches up in confusion. “You made fun of Eritreans fighting for freedom?”

“We had no choice,” she says. “The soldiers came to the school and they forced us. They picked about twenty students from our school and told us to join the group. They gave us lyrics and forced us to learn them. We used to sing all over Eritrea, visiting different villages. One day we went to my father’s village, and the people there didn’t like us. They felt insulted. We were Eritreans, too. It wasn’t right. But the soldiers said, ‘Sing or you’ll go to jail.’ That’s why we sang.”

My voice rises with trepidation. “What happened?”

“We got fed up and told the soldiers, ‘No.’ We refused to sing.”

One word, one thought, one daring declaration of freedom. No, she would not sing songs that offended her father’s village. No, she would not serve an organization that hurt her people. No, she would not continue to hide her identity.

“The soldiers sent all of us to jail. The first two days, they wouldn’t give us food. The soldiers would ask, ‘Are you going to sing? If you don’t sing, we won’t give you food. You’re going to stay here. You’re not going to get out.’ And we were hungry—so hungry! After two days we broke down and told them we would sing. They finally let us out after a week.”

The injustice of throwing girls in jail for refusing to sing infuriates me. “How did you manage to go back to singing after that?”

“We sang, but in our minds, we were all making plans to become soldiers for the resistance or go to Sudan.”


On Sale
Aug 6, 2019
Page Count
288 pages

Haben Girma stands wearing a red dress with sunlit trees in the background.

Haben Girma

About the Author

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. Her work has been featured in the Financial Times, BBC, Washington Post, NPR, and more.

Learn more about this author