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Harvard Law School's first deafblind graduate Haben Girma shares her biggest piece of career advice

Haben Girma on NBC's Today Show
Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Haben Girma became the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School in 2013 and has gone on to build a career as a disability rights lawyer, author and public speaker.

Her biggest piece of advice to young people is to create their own career.

"Don't wait for somebody else to tell you what to do," she told CNBC's Make It, saying young people should identify and develop their talents.

Realizing her own talents in advocacy led Girma to study at Harvard Law School, in order to gain the litigation skills to "remove more barriers" for those with disabilities.

Girma's parents wanted her to become a teacher for the blind because she said it was "hard for them to imagine what exactly I could do and what my opportunities were, but I chose to create my own opportunities."

A "curiosity" to physically experience the world also drove Girma's ambition, as she said she was "not willing to sit on the sidelines."

She applied this mantra to her personal life, learning to dance, surf and rock climb, as well as traveling the world. This included convincing her parents to let her go to Mali in West Africa to help build a school.

'Generation ADA'

One of the proudest moments of her career, she said, was publishing a book this past summer, "Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law," in which she discusses ableism, the discrimination against those with disabilities, and how this intersects with sexism and racism.

Born two years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, Girma described herself as part of "generation ADA."

In 2014, she filed a lawsuit against digital library Scribd to get it to make its services accessible to blind people and adhere to ADA, which the company contested on the grounds that the legislation did not apply to digital businesses.

Girma's brief against this argument won the case and a settlement, seeing digital businesses incorporated into ADA.

Other achievements include being named a White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2013.

Biggest inspiration

Girma said her biggest inspiration is her mom, who grew up in Eritrea, in East Africa, during its war with neighboring country Ethiopia. Her mom walked for three weeks from Eritrea to Sudan, in order to escape the war.

After spending 10 months in Sudan, a refugee organization helped Girma's mother come to America.

Once she came to the U.S., Girma's mother had to build up her English, go to school and seek employment. Girma said that while her mother's story isn't about disability, it's similar in the way she had to "pave her way through the unknown," something the activist felt she has also had to do.

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