Power Players

I am Harvard Law's first deafblind graduate. Here's what college is like for students with disabilities

"Can you hear me?"

The voice coming through my earbuds sounds scratchy. The earbuds connect to an FM receiver, part of an assistive listening device. Harvard Law School hired American Sign Language interpreters with voice transliteration skills to provide access to audio and visual information in my classes.

In the back, interpreters Celia Michau and Erin Foley whisper into a microphone, which has a wireless connection with the receiver, so I can sit anywhere in the classroom. I prefer to sit in the back, though, just in case I need to communicate with the interpreters.

"[Mumble, mumble, static crackle.] How about now?" a voice asks.

I shrug, then shake my head no.

"Well, you're responding, so you can kind of hear us, right?" Somewhere in front of me, the professor lectures us on contracts. Around him, 70 students sit in rows of desks facing forward. Using my voice would disrupt the class.

Turning to the back of the room, I lift my hands, then pause. To communicate through signs, I need to distill my ideas into my limited sign language vocabulary, or otherwise spell out all the words. I sign, "C-O-M-P-L-I-C-A-T-E-D."

"It's complicated? So you can hear us, but it's hard to hear us?"

"Right," I sign back.

"Okay. What can we do to help?"

"I don't know," I sign.

Haben Girma with former President Barack Obama
(Photo: Office of Haben Girma_

"The professor just looked at us. I think he was wondering if you raised your hand."

My face grows hot. I make a mental note to keep my signing as low as possible.

"Do you want us to continue with class?" Nodding, I turn my chair to face the front.

"Okay, back to class. The defendant's [mumble mumble]."

Reaching down for my guide dog, Maxine, I discover her stretched out. I give her a belly rub.

The lecture continues, and I strain to catch the words. Every way I listen, the words are gobbledygook. It's not the volume, which is already turned to a high setting. It's my hearing. My ever-decreasing, diminishing, disappointing hearing.

Why I chose Harvard

I'm 22 years old, and every year my hearing and vision have dimmed. The changes are gradual, until all of the sudden my old coping strategies no longer work.

Since I wore sleep shades during blindness training, adjusting to my ongoing vision loss has been straightforward. I already have all the blindness skills, but adjusting to hearing loss feels more challenging. The inaccessibility of the hearing world constantly threatens to isolate me.

Connecting with classmates and professors at Harvard was always important to me, but it wasn't the only reason I moved from Oregon to Massachusetts.

My personal experience with discrimination, as well as those I heard from others, sparked my desire to develop legal advocacy skills. My pre-law advisor urged me to strive for the highest ranked school so I could gain access to the most employment opportunities. Even lawyers with disabilities face employment discrimination.

The school didn't know exactly which accommodations I need. Neither did I; doing law school deafblind was new to me, too.

After I spent months crafting a competitive law school application, offers came pouring in. And then came the big one: Harvard Law School. Harvard offered me admission with a financial aid package that included grants and loans.

Leaving the Best Coast for the East Coast didn't appeal to me, but I knew I had to do everything in my power to increase my chances of becoming a successful lawyer. My parents supported the move, especially after I promised to return to California post-graduation.

In some ways, Harvard felt a lot like my other schools. The written word served as my lifeline. The disability office worked with professors to convert all written materials into an accessible format. My biggest struggle was finding a better ways to communicate with classmates and professors.

Harvard Law School's first deafblind graduate

Harvard excluded many groups throughout its history. When Helen Keller was applying for college, Harvard wouldn't admit her. Back in those days, Harvard only admitted men. Harvard's sister school, Radcliffe College, offered Helen Keller admission, and she received her degree in 1904.

The Harvard community chose to exclude women for the first two hundred-plus years of its existence. Over time, the culture shifted. Adapted. Changed. Harvard eventually opened its doors to women, people of color, and people with disabilities.

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

Throughout my three years at Harvard Law School, I continued to face challenges. The school didn't know exactly which accommodations I need. Neither did I; doing law school deafblind was new to me, too.

We engaged in an interactive process. We tried different strategies until we find the right solutions. I passed all my classes, even earning several honors.

My personal experience with discrimination, as well as those I heard from others, sparked my desire to develop legal advocacy skills.

In my final year, I was honored with a Skadden Fellowship, one of the most prestigious fellowships in the legal field. The Skadden Foundation provided two years of financial support for my work to increase access to digital reading services for blind students.

I was excited to pack my bags and head to sunny California for my new job at Disability Rights Advocates. "No more cold, snowy winters for us," I told Maxine.

Haben Girma is the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. An advocate for equal opportunities for people with disabilities, she was named by former President Barack Obama as a White House Champion of Change. Haben also received the Helen Keller Achievement Award, and a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Follow her on Twitter.

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law," by Haben Girma, published by Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission.

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