All Well and Good: Sharing the Story of Haben Girma
By Freeman World, M.Div
How does she communicate? How does she get around? How… how does she do life? These were just a few of the questions that came to mind when I learned the story of Haben Girma. Born deaf and blind in Oakland, CA, to immigrant parents from Africa, Girma is a lawyer and disability rights activist.
Having graduated magna cum laude from Lewis and Clark College with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Haben went on to become the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. When asked how she overcame her disability, Haben responded, “My disability is not something I’ve had to overcome. I’m still Deafblind. The biggest barrier I face is ableism, the widespread beliefs and practices that value nondisabled people over disabled people.”1
Haben’s fight against ableism has resulted in her receiving numerous accolades. She was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 for Law and Policy. She was identified as a Champion of Change by the Obama Administration. However, she is arguably most recognizable for challenging TEDx for its ableist practices and lack of accessibility during her own TEDx talk.
Although praise for such a person is quite natural, Haben wants people to be mindful of the words they use. According to Haben, “A lot of people with disabilities are tired of the word ‘inspirational.’ Some even take offense. The overuse has dulled its meaning.” As she continues, “I want people to see the story of disability driving innovation, inspiring new technologies, bringing people together and connecting everyone – not just being ‘inspirational.’”2
The above quote highlights the conflict and tension that Girma experiences when hearing a word that is meant to compliment, yet mostly disappoints. It is as if I can hear Girma saying “It is all well and good that you find me, and others like me, inspirational, but what now?”
The phrase all well and good is an idiom. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary it is “used to say that something may seem proper, good, or reasonable by itself but that there are other things that also have to be considered.” It is all well and good that people find Girma to be inspirational, but how is that inspiration challenging corporations, small businesses, and houses of worship to be more accessible and inclusive? It is all well and good that people are moved by the stories of the disabled community, but how is that sentiment moving society and government into the continued prioritizing of disabled people? It is all well and good that people find the persistence of disability activists remarkable, but how is that thought encouraging others to persistently stand in solidarity? Inspiration is all well and good, but how is it fostering positive change?
My initials questions of “How is she able to…” despite being deafblind were a testament to my ignorance. And the only way to inform ignorance is by educating oneself.
Haben Girma’s story has reminded me to never question the resolve of a determined individual, especially when that person is Black. Ultimately, high regard of remarkable people by itself is not enough to move the needle of change. It is not until we help cultivate a world where disability justice matters are transported from the margins to the mainstream that our admiration becomes action.
- Girma, Haben. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Haben Girma. https://habengirma.com/faq/, Accessed February 24, 2023.
- Bondy, Halley. “Deaf-Blind Harvard Law Grad Slays Every Expectation, But Don’t Call Her An ‘Inspiration.’” Oxygen. 2016. https://www.oxygen.com/blogs/deaf-blind-harvard-law-grad-slays-every-expectation-but-dont-call-her-an-inspiration, Accessed February 24, 2023.