A Review of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma
September 18, 2020 § 4 Comments
By M. Leona Godin
Haben Girma’s memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law contains many gripping moments. For example, in the opening scene, her father is taken off the plane in Ethiopia, leaving seven-year-old Haben, with her limited vision and hearing, to puzzle out the mystery of his absence and how she will make it home to Oakland California by herself.
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law also contains many humorous nuggets about navigating our society’s rampant ableism that creeps even into the mind of her little cousin who demands Haben make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while insisting that blind people cannot make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: “You said a blind person can’t make a PB&J. So how can I make you a PB&J?” she asks him to which he responds: “But I saw you!”
“His personal observations contradict the ‘truth’ he learned from society that all blind people are incompetent,” writes Haben. “I want Yafet to reject ableism. If he says that a blind person can make a PB&J, then I’ll make him one.”
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law strives to dismantle ableism in many ways, one of which is to confront the inspiration porn impulse head on. “Tell her she’s very inspiring,” says a man at a Harvard mentorship social. “I cringe inwardly,” writes Haben. “People with disabilities get called inspiring so often, usually for the most insignificant things, that the word now feels like a euphemism for pity.”
A tenacious and kind impulse to facilitate understanding being one of her most useful and charming traits, Haben does not let the “inspiring” bit get her down. Instead she thinks, “when a nondisabled person uses the word to describe a person with a disability, it’s a sign that they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable.”
This man, whom Haben’s interpreter had brought over at Haben’s request, refused to use the ingenious system she’d come up with to communicate with fellow students in crowded situations where her hearing impairment makes it impossible for her to participate in casual conversation. It involves a wireless keyboard and a braille computer. As the person types, Haben reads the braille on the display and responds with her voice. She explains her system and asks the man if he’d like to try.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m enjoying watching you two. This is my card. It was very inspiring meeting her. Tell her she’s beautiful. You ladies take care.”
He walks away, and Haben’s interpreter asks (via the keyboard he refused), what she thought of the encounter. Haben, like so many disabled people I know, uses humor to diffuse potentially soul-crushing encounters. She rests her chin on her hand and says, “That was…inspiring.”
I read the ebook version of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law using my wireless braille display with my iPhone. Sort of. As someone who started life sighted, spent three decades visually-impaired and only recently became totally blind, I did not learn braille as a child, so I haven’t anything close to Haben’s skills. My go-to accessible technology is text-to-speech software. Often I go back and forth with an ebook—reading braille when I have two hands and listening to my electronic reader when I’m eating or washing dishes.
Perhaps it was because she entered the school system seventeen years after I did—in the post-ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) era, or perhaps because she was losing hearing as well as sight, Haben learned braille at an early age. This is sadly not the norm. Many visually-impaired children are forced into using large print for as long as their eyes hold out and are then encouraged to use speech synthesizers. Often this is because many teachers of the visually impaired do not know braille themselves. The upshot is that only about ten percent of blind people read braille.
Thus I loved reading about Haben’s undergrad experience at Lewis & Clark College, where she was the first braille reader to enter their disability services center, which didn’t “phase them one bit.” With a “pioneering spirit” they embraced the challenge: “They purchased a braille embosser, purchased braille translation software, and then spent the summer learning how to produce braille. They’re not afraid of the unknown; they learn, explore, and discover for the sake of their students and the betterment of themselves.”
Haben demonstrates how her successes are made possible by a system that supports accessibility. Likewise, many of her challenges are the same so many of us face. This is why, I think, she reminds us of the statistics behind her personal struggles: “Around seventy percent of blind people are unemployed.” Although she graduated high school as valedictorian and had an excellent college GPA, “The seventy percent unemployment rate still managed to claim me, leaving me jobless in Jobville, Alaska.”
These reflections come during a summer in Juneau, where she’d sent out application after application to temporary jobs that open up to accommodate the heavy tourist season, and received interview after interview, with no offers: “When you do everything right and society stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will always overcome obstacles.”
It’s not just Haben’s considerable successes that one remembers from this extraordinary memoir, but also her many invocations of the difficulties disabled people face all the time. Haben’s story shows how necessary and beautiful it is to strive. And continue striving.
Yes, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law contains many exhilarating moments, like when she climbs up an iceberg dropped by the Mendenhall Glacier and then pushes herself down the ice slide into the unseen, unheard unknown, but it’s the quiet reminders of how success and confidence grow slowly and cumulatively, like the process of glacier formation itself, that make this book memorable.
Leona Godin is a writer, performer, and educator who is blind. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, PLAYBOY, O Magazine, and Catapult, among others. Godin was honored to be a 2019 Logan Nonfiction Fellow. She founded Aromatica Poetica, an online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste as a venue welcoming to, but not specifically for, blind readers and writers. Her personal and cultural history of seeing and not-seeing is forthcoming from Pantheon Books.