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How a Deaf-Blind Lawyer Chooses Her Own Story – Haben Girma

In this episode we talked about reframing disabilities as another driver of innovation to meet the needs of the world’s largest minority.

Haben Girma is the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School. She advocates for equal access to information for people with disabilities, and because of this work she has been honored by President Obama, President Clinton and many others.

In this short episode we talked about her own journey with disability and the support network that has helped her grow and excel in various aspects of life, from advocacy to salsa to surfing. We also discussed the enormous market opportunity that people with disabilities presents: at 1.3B, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority. Imagine the impact if we could include and harness diversity that created solutions for such a vast market. Haben educated me on “situational disability”: eg when a mother carrying a child has only one arm available, in that moment she is disabled – so solutions for disabilities can apply far and wide.

We talked about the great technological things happening around communicating with people who are blind and / or deaf, and also got Haben’s wish list to improve the experience!

If you would like to get in touch with Haben or learn more about her work, please visit or find her on Instagram @habengirma

A huge thanks to Naseba and the Global WIL Economic Forum for making this interview possible.

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas:                      Hello, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our first show of 2018. I’m absolutely thrilled to have on today’s episode a lady who is both deaf and blind, and it is the first time I personally meet someone who is deaf and blind, and interview them. Haben Girma has earned recognition as a White House champion of change. Forbes 30 under 30, and BBC Women of Africa hero. The first deaf-blind graduate from Harvard Law School Haben advocates for equal access to information for people with disabilities. Because of her advocacy, she’s been honored by President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, and many others. Based in San Francisco, Haben enjoys salsa dancing, surfing, and traveling the world. In today’s episode, we talked about her own journey with disability, and the support network that has helped her grow and excel in various aspects of life. We also discuss the enormous market opportunity that people with disabilities presents. At 1.3 billion people, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority.

                                                Imagine the impact if we could include and harness diversity that created solutions for such a vast market, so let’s get into it. Haben, thank you so much for being my guest on When Women Win. It’s such a pleasure to meet you.

Haben Girma:                    It’s great to meet you too. I’m thrilled to be here.

Rana Nawas:                      Can you tell our listeners how this is happening, because you’re deaf and blind, so I’d love for them to understand how we’re communicating today.

Haben Girma:                    We’re communicating through technology called a digital braille display. Digital dots pop up on a device, and I run my fingers over the device to feel the letters, and my friend is typing on a wireless QWERTY keyboard that uses Bluetooth to output to the digital braille display, so as you speak, someone is typing. I’m reading it with my fingers, and then responding back by voice.

Rana Nawas:                      This has been an incredible learning experience for me. I’m really enjoying it. Thank you so much for broadening my horizons in 10 seconds.

Haben Girma:                    You’re very welcome.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, let’s talk about practical advice. Many of us don’t encounter deaf and/or blind people every day, so when we do meet someone with such a disability, we can become easily intimidated, and not know how to communicate with them, just because we don’t want to offend them. What’s your advice on handling such a situation?

Haben Girma:                    First of all, be careful of casting all deaf-blind people into one group. We’re very, very diverse, even in communication strategies. Some people use digital braille, some people use sign language, some people use other techniques, so it’s important that when you talk about disability, remember the group is very diverse. Some people are open to talking about disabilities. Some people don’t want to talk about it. I’m very open. That’s why I’ here on this podcast with you, and I prefer that people ask their questions rather than making assumptions. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Be a pioneer. Embrace the unknown. The unknown is scary when you let it stay unknown, so go and ask questions. Figure it out. Find a way to connect. It could be through text. It could be through emails, maybe gestures. Everybody could always find a way to connect.

Rana Nawas:                      Sticking with the theme of connecting or communicating, let’s talk about accessibility to information. In the digital age today, how do people with disabilities get information? How do they read books, and I know I hear you. There’s a lot of diversity of course amongst people with disabilities, but are there some popular technological advances that are really helping?

Haben Girma:                    There are some technologies that are helpful, like the device that I’m using, a braille computer, but for the most part, people with disabilities want to use the same devices and apps that non-disabled people are using. Separate is never equal. We don’t want separate websites for people with disabilities. We want one website that everybody can use, and the way to make that happen is to have web developers design the websites with accessibility in mind. The web content accessibility guidelines is a great resource for web developers. For app developers, there’s the Apple and Android accessibility guidelines, so it’s up to companies to keep their apps and websites accessible.

Rana Nawas:                      Right. Okay. Let’s talk about market size. There are one billion people with disabilities in our world today, making it the world’s largest minority. What do you believe that this means for business?

Haben Girma:                    It’s an incredible opportunity for businesses. If they’re smart enough to invest in this opportunity, so 1.3 billion people with disabilities throughout the world, you can grow your audience, increase customers, increase business in the long run if you make your services accessible, so it benefits companies to make their services accessible.

Rana Nawas:                      What apps do you find yourself using most often?

Haben Girma:                    I use all the native apps on Apple products, so mail, messages, weather, Safari, all of those have been built with accessibility in mind. They are compatible with voice over, which is a screen reader used on Apple products. The vast majority of apps are not accessible, though, so when I need something that’s not native to Apple, I have to search around for a long time to try to find one that works, and that’s frustrating. I wish more app developers would make their apps accessible, so that more apps were available to people with disabilities.

Rana Nawas:                      No, I understand, and I was amazed when I heard about your fashion workaround. Can you please tell listeners how you buy your clothes.

Haben Girma:                    That’s such a huge conversation switch from technology. I use a service called Stitch Fix, which combines tech and personal assistance, so in some ways this is connected to technology, and I can order things through Stitch Fix. They send about five things in a box, and you can try them on. I can feel when something feels good, and if it fits properly, and then I could send a picture to friends, and they could give visual feedback. It’s really, really important give visual feedback that’s not subjective. For example, someone could say, “That’s a blue dress,” or they could say, “That’s a hideously blue dress.” There’s a difference, and it’s really helpful to give information without pushing your own opinions and pushing your own agenda, so I have friends who are thoughtful and can give descriptions without trying to influence the outcome.

Rana Nawas:                      Your friend typing right now I think is not one of those ladies. I think she’s always giving you positive feedback, according to her.

Haben Girma:                    She and I will have a conversation afterward.

Rana Nawas:                      Nice one, Haben. I don’t often quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, but there’s one statement he made that I found so powerful, and given what you just said about how you rely on friends, I want to share it with you. His thesis is that nobody makes it on their own, no man, no woman gets there alone. What are ways your network has helped you achieve all the great things you’ve achieved?

Haben Girma:                    When I was in elementary school, I did not have advocacy skills. Kids don’t have advocacy skills, but I had an amazing network of teachers and community members who said, “Yes, you can. Yes, you can read. Yes, you can get a job. Yes, you can graduate from high school.” There are a lot of communities throughout the world where if a disabled child expresses interest in learning to read, learning to become good at math, they’ll say, “You can’t do that. Don’t even try.” That’s harmful, so a lot of my success is steered to the fact that I grew up in a community that told me from the very beginning, “Yes, you can. Go for it. Try,” even if they didn’t know the solution. They still encouraged me to try, so it’s all about communities. You can call it friends, work colleagues, family members, but essentially a community that encourages and supports individuals.

Rana Nawas:                      That’s amazing, that you have so many friends and family, that you had that exposure to such a supportive community, to get you where you are today, which is, I would like to ask you, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Haben Girma:                    I work as a public speaker, consultant, and I teach organizations about disability rates and inclusion. I’m also an author, and I’m writing my first book, which is going to be a memoir.

Rana Nawas:                      When you help corporations become more disability-friendly, what do you advise them to do typically, whether it’s in hiring, or innovation?

Haben Girma:                    Definitely hire more people with disabilities. There are so many people with disabilities who are talented, yet employers overlook them. Employers miss out on a lot of the technologies we use today, from email to keyboards, have been developed and inspired by people with disabilities, because disability is another way of living in the world. When you have another way of living in the world, you’re more likely to come up with new, innovative ideas that drive innovation, so companies that have diverse teams are more likely to build the next big thing. Invest in having a diverse workforce. Hire people with disabilities. Make sure you remove barriers in your workspace which could be physical barriers. Make sure wheelchair users can access everything in the facility. Remove digital barriers. Make sure your website complies with the web content accessibility guidelines, and your apps comply with Apple’s and Android accessibility guidelines.

Rana Nawas:                      What about smaller companies? They might turn around and say, “Well, we don’t have the budget to do all of that.” What would you say to them?

Haben Girma:                    I would say, “Have you actually looked at the barriers, and the costs of removing those barriers?” A lot of things are much cheaper than people realize. Some accommodations don’t even cost anything. Somebody with a disability might need a flexible schedule, or it might be choosing an accessible place over an inaccessible place, and the cost might be the same, so don’t make assumptions about disability. Instead, do some research, and this is a significant market. 1.3 billion people with disabilities all over the world, so why would you want to lose out on this market? The other thing to keep in mind is that many countries have laws requiring accessibility, so if you don’t prioritize accessibility, you risk litigation, and litigation is very expensive.

Rana Nawas:                      All right, now, Haben, I’m going to shift gears a little bit to talk about you personally. I’ve tried surfing, and it’s damn hard, so how did you learn to surf?

Haben Girma:                    I learned to surf because I found a community that was very supportive. There were some surf schools that were like, no, you can’t learn. There’s no way it can be done. Then I found some people who were like, we don’t know about deaf-blind surfers, but let’s give it a try. I’m sure we’ll figure it out, and we did. I also have coordination and balance. I’ve been dancing for a long time, so surfing is in many ways a form of dance.

Rana Nawas:                      Also, being deaf and blind, how did you learn to speak? Your intonation is perfect.

Haben Girma:                    There’s a lot of diversity within the disability community, so deafness encompasses a spectrum of hearing loss. I have a little bit of hearing in the high frequencies, so I learned to speak at a higher voice, and the speech intelligence is in the high frequencies. Most people who are deaf have the opposite kind of hearing loss. They lose the high frequencies, and thus it becomes harder for them to enunciate the consonants, so it’s a matter of my unique kind of hearing loss.

Rana Nawas:                      Let’s talk about confidence, if we could. There is a confidence gap between men and women that starts when we’re very young, between five and six, actually, five and six years old. You are a woman of color with a disability, so theoretically, on the receiving end of a lot of bias that can undermine one’s self-esteem. How have you kept up your positivity, your optimism, and your self-confidence?

Haben Girma:                    I choose my own story. There are stories that say black lives don’t matter, or disabled lives don’t matter. I choose to create my own story, and believe that my life does matter. I move through life with those beliefs, and I find communities with whom those beliefs resonate, so all the employers I’ve worked for have believed in inclusion, and have worked to make their workspaces inclusive. All the schools I attended had teachers that wanted to ensure that students with disabilities had access, so I choose my own stories, and there are communities out there who similarly believe that everyone deserves equality.

Rana Nawas:                      What fills you with energy? What drives you forward?

Haben Girma:                    Curiosity. I’m super curious.

Rana Nawas:                      I love that. Me, too.

Haben Girma:                    What are you curious about?

Rana Nawas:                      Everything. I’m curious about everything, and that’s a problem.

Haben Girma:                    Not necessarily. You could have adventures in all sorts of different areas, if you’re curious about everything.

Rana Nawas:                      Yeah, so hence the podcast, and all these passion projects that I work on, and I get to meet amazing people along the way. I guess what drives me is curiosity, but also it’s curiosity primarily about people.

Haben Girma:                    Yeah. I’m also curious about people, and I do everything I can to connect with people. I know sign language, but most hearing people don’t know sign language, so that wouldn’t work with connecting with them. Most hearing people can type on a keyboard, so the system I’ve used of using a keyboard and braille display is a way to connect with people. I’m always looking for ways to connect with people. This is what I use now. It may not be what I use in a year. Technology changes. Maybe someone will innovate something that makes it even easier for people with disabilities to connect and communicate. You never know.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, what types of innovation would you like to see in communication?

Haben Girma:                    For starters, I think we need to look beyond deaf-blindness. Innovation for people with disabilities is a starting point, and it’ll often end up in creating things that help lots of other people. For example, the father of email, [inaudible 00:16:24] who helped develop the first email protocol, he’s deaf, and email became a way for him to communicate long distance without straining to hear over the telephone, so something we develop for people who are deaf-blind is also going to have benefits for people without disabilities. Haptics, the communication of information through touch, has a lot of potential. Skin is our largest organ, yet we’ve barely looked at the possibilities of haptics and technology, so I’d like to see more companies innovating in this area, building products that use touch to communicate information. It could be braille, but you know, braille is kind of ancient technology. It’s time we move past braille, so I encourage all companies to think creatively, and find new ways to communicate information through touch.

Rana Nawas:                      What about voice recognition technology?

Haben Girma:                    Voice recognition technology is awesome. It needs to continue improving. It’s not perfect yet, but maybe it will be in five years or so.

Rana Nawas:                      I’m glad you’ve talked about the role technology will play in changing the landscape for people with disabilities. What about for women? Let’s talk about gender now. Do you see any impact of technology on gender diversity and gender balance in the workforce?

Haben Girma:                    There’s something called situational disability, and that’s when someone who’s non-disabled, whether a man or a woman, experiences a temporary disability. Maybe they’re carrying groceries, so now for the moment, they’re one-handed, or maybe they’re texting on their phone and holding a child, so temporarily, situationally, they’re disabled. When you design products for people with disabilities, like people who have just one hand, you’re also tapping into the market of non-disabled individuals who are regularly situationally disabled throughout their days.

Rana Nawas:                      That’s something I’ve never thought of before.

Haben Girma:                    Women may encounter more situational disabilities than men throughout our lifetimes, maybe due to having more household responsibilities, or childcare and pregnancy-related responsibilities. When you design accessible products, you’re also helping non-disabled individuals with temporary disabilities, so it will also help women.

Rana Nawas:                      Do you have any tips for women at the beginning of their careers?

Haben Girma:                    Yeah. My advice to women is to choose your careers. Choose your stories. Don’t let society tell you what you should be doing. Decide for yourself what you’d like to be doing.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, you’re the first deaf and blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. How was that experience for you, being at Harvard?

Haben Girma:                    I was actually the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School of any gender, so how was that like? It was a journey. We didn’t know exactly what I would do when I started, because we didn’t know all the solutions, but we were thoughtful. We engaged in an interactive process, trying one accommodation. If it didn’t work, trying another accommodation, and I made sure to have fun. I was still dancing. I was making friends, so it was a journey.

Rana Nawas:                      I think for all of us, university years are the best years of our life. Would you say that that was the same for you?

Haben Girma:                    I grew up in California, and I went to college outside of California. I did so intentionally because I wanted to make sure that I communicated to my parents that I’m independent, and I don’t need them. If I’d gone to school near them, they would have tried to come every weekend and do my laundry, or try to help with little things, so I was pushing myself to be more self-reliant, and also sending them the message that they need to trust me, and in the end, it was great. They now have more respect and trust in my abilities.

Rana Nawas:                      How did you do your laundry?

Haben Girma:                    With a washing machine. You can put a tactile button on the washing machine, so that you can feel where the different settings are. I’ll take a little tactile sticker, and put it on top of the area, so that when I turn the knob, or I want to know what button’s what, I can easily feel on the machine, and then I just hit the right button.

Rana Nawas:                      Wow. I’m sure you’re one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, Haben. That’s for sure. Okay. How about books. You’re an author. I’m sure you read a lot. Are there any books you read recently that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Haben Girma:                    One of my favorite books is called Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strade. It’s a collection of really beautiful stories about love, family, grief, everything we all experience. When we take the time to be vulnerable and honest, it helps us grow through those experiences. I like books like that, that are thoughtful and meaningful.

Rana Nawas:                      Haben, can we talk about your family for a bit. How many brothers and sisters do you have?

Haben Girma:                    I have a younger sister and two older brothers. They’re all in the Bay Area.

Rana Nawas:                      Do they have disabilities, too, or not, and how is it like being at home?

Haben Girma:                    One of my brothers is also deaf-blind, and he’s also six years older than me, so that age gap, and on top of the fact that he’s of a different gender, it’s difficult at times to see eye-to-eye.

Rana Nawas:                      How about communicating with your younger siblings? How did you do that at a very young age, before this technology was there?

Haben Girma:                    People are thoughtful and creative, and we always find solutions, so we used a little bit of a sign language, and a little bit of voice, and just kind of a combination of everything. I missed out on a ton of information when I didn’t have my braille computer. I missed out on a lot of things in school, too, and we just do the best we can, given the tools we have.

Rana Nawas:                      My last question, Haben, is what is a question that you wish people would ask you more often?

Haben Girma:                    What can companies do to make their workspaces more accessible?

Rana Nawas:                      What would the answer be?

Haben Girma:                    Companies can strive to look around and identify potential barriers. We want every member of the team to be an advocate, and look around for potential barriers, and once you’ve documented all the barriers, work to remove them, so that your community could be more accessible, and when it’s more accessible, it’s also more innovative, so it gives you an advantage.

Rana Nawas:                      Great. This has been incredibly fun. You really put me in my place there, Haben, a couple of times.

Haben Girma:                    When we started, you told me you wouldn’t have any controversial questions, so I was concerned and decided to make manners into my own hands to make this a more engaging conversation.

Rana Nawas:                      I love it. Thank you so much. I have thoroughly enjoyed talking to you, and just for our listeners, how can they find you?

Haben Girma:                    If anyone has been amused, or engaged, or learned something new in this conversation, you can look me up at, You could also follow me on social media. My handle is @habengirma. Thanks for listening, everyone.

Rana Nawas:                      Thank you so much. Thanks, Haben. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out show notes and more episodes at, or search When Women Win on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback, and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on Instagram, @rananawas. Thanks and have a great day. 

End Of Transcript