In her memoir Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, Haben Girma welcomes readers into her world. “I like my deafblind world. It’s comfortable, familiar. It doesn’t feel small or limited,” she writes, and the memoir illustrates that. Girma’s memoir is written in present tense, so readers feel as though we’re experiencing events exactly as she did in the moment, whether it was her volunteer work in Mali or her trip to Alaska or her days at Harvard Law School.
At the heart of Girma’s memoir—which dives into her fear of cooking, her interest in travel and salsa dancing, and her passion for law and public speaking—is the message that the world needs to be more accessible to disabled people.
“Society designed this environment for people who can see and hear. In this environment, I’m disabled. They put the burden on me to step out of my world and reach into theirs,” she writes in an early chapter, and the concept continues throughout the book. Girma faces barriers in college when she pushes for accessible menus at the cafeteria just as she faced them playing games with her friends as a kid.
Girma’s personal stories don’t just encourage access. They go deeper than that; she wants nondisabled people to take responsibility and create collective access together. In an early scene, Girma recounts what it was like as a kid being told that she needed to ask about the homework; “I just feel tolerated,” she writes. She demonstrates collective access through scenes with her friends, Gordon and Liqin, and with classmates and mentors during her Harvard Law School years.
In these moments, Girma and her community design what access looks like and build it together—typing into a braille computer to communicate at a noisy bar, and advocating for truly accessible menu solutions together. I felt the joy and love in access in these scenes: It’s the same way I have felt when my friends text me in a noisy bar because I can’t hear their voices or when someone sits down with me in solidarity because I’m the only one who needs to rest at a networking event. As she and her friends create collective access and advocate for systemic changes in their communities, Girma also discovers her passion for law and disability advocacy.
Another thread running through Girma’s memoir is the importance of independence and misconceptions about what disabled people can do. Like many, Girma has to challenge her parents to allow her to do things like travel (or even take the bus) and faces classmates, colleagues, and mentors underestimating and looking down on her. Throughout her journey, she’s determined to break down those myths, while never falling into the trope of ‘overcoming’ disability, either.
She’s honest about how being deafblind impacts her life—writing about exactly how difficult it is to join a conversation when all she can hear are vague mumbles—and also wants society to see her for who she is rather than seeing a collection of ideas about disabled or deafblind people. She also touches on inspiration porn and writes in a chapter about a law networking event, “People with disabilities get called inspiring so often, usually for the most insignificant things, that the word now feels like a euphemism for pity.” Girma is well-acquainted with inspiration porn as someone who made headlines for her graduation from Harvard Law, and she’s not afraid to dispel the idea that she’s inspiring simply for going to law school.
There are a few scenes during the book in which Girma faults herself for the ableism she experiences. “By framing the situation as me-against-them, I perpetuated and guaranteed my own exclusion,” she writes in one scene about communicating with sighted and hearing people as a deafblind person. These moments felt authentic to me as a disabled reader; I too have blamed myself for ableism over the years. Girma wants to be fair and take responsibility for her own decisions, which I respect, but there are a few instances where I thought she was too hard on herself and didn’t recognize that ableism and access barriers aren’t her fault.
At 266 pages, the memoir felt a little short and focused more on Girma’s childhood and teen years than on her experiences at Harvard and beyond. As a reader, there are moments and chapters that I wish were explored in more depth. Girma spends a lot of time on her Eritrean heritage and makes a few references to being black, but I would have loved to learn more about how her race and culture inform who she is and how she connects to the world. I also would have liked to go deeper into her relationships, especially with her parents, to understand their connection outside of their worries about her disability affecting her safety. Most chapters also felt like there was a lesson embedded in the story, excepting the chapter that focused on her family’s heritage, and I would have liked more moments that told the reader about who Girma is without trying to teach us something important about disability or access.
Although Girma doesn’t use the term disabled to refer to herself very often throughout the book, except to say she’s disabled by her circumstances, she does include an appendix at the end of the book titled, “A Brief Guide to Increasing Access for People with Disabilities,” that covers best practices for talking about disability and discourages terms such as special needs and differently abled. There is no explicit discussion about the phrase disabled person versus person with a disability, but Girma typically defaults to the latter.
On the whole, Girma’s memoir is a love letter to the disability community, especially to deafblind people, and it celebrates collective access, disability justice, and education, both formal and informal. “I’m going to create a community of people who believe that disability itself is not a barrier; the biggest barriers are social, physical, and digital,” Girma writes—and that’s exactly what she does, not only in her own community but through her advocacy around the world.