Advocate and Activist Haben Girma
Muse, incentive, influence, motivation. These are all synonyms for “inspiration” and disability advocate and activist Haben Girma asks that we (particularly the media) learn to use them instead of the trite, clichéd “inspiration.”
Certainly her myriad of accomplishments – surfing the waves in California where she was born and raised; helping build a school in Mali; graduating from Harvard Law School (‘13) – are enough to strike awe in anyone. Haben, 31, doesn’t believe being born Deafblind (her preferred spelling because “it’s a cultural identity”) should prevent her from pursuing the life she wants. There are over one billion disabled people, comprising the world’s largest minority, and our communities miss out on this immense talent pool when we don’t choose inclusion.
Haben’s mother, Saba, who fled the war in Eritrea as a 16-year old refugee, spending three weeks making the dangerous trek on foot to Sudan (and eventually finding her way to the US with the help of a Catholic aid agency), motivates Haben to “have courage and go on my own adventures.”
Haben has discovered one of the greatest barriers facing people with disabilities is ableism, the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to the nondisabled. It’s when communities remove ableism that Haben feels most included, such as climbing an iceberg in Alaska with friends. She describes her many exciting adventures in her new book titled: Haben The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.
However, it was something as simple as trying to find out what was on the college lunch menu, which was only available in printed form and therefore not accessible to Haben or other blind students, that led her to become an advocate for others who might not be aware of what they are entitled to under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law which “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life.”
The same lessons Haben has learned as part of the world’s largest minority can be applied to women and other non-dominant members in male-dominated industries, such as energy: teach people what you need, develop self-advocacy skills, and know your rights so that your requests are not viewed as special treatment, but simply compliance with laws that are in place to ensure equality for everyone.
An Opportunity for Innovation
Haben, who communicates through an electronic keyboard which sends the writer’s comments to her via a braille keyboard, knows firsthand how access to the right tools, particularly technology, opened doors for her and eventually led to the distinction of becoming Harvard Law School’s first Deafblind graduate. As industry enters Energy 2.0 and the world as a whole becomes more digitized, this access is critically important for the disabled.
As she told President Obama in 2015 at the White House celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),
“Technology can bridge the gap for people with disabilities and, as Internet services open more opportunities for people, we’re going to see more people with disabilities employed and succeeding.”
That sends a powerful message to the energy industry – and any other sector – seeking an innovative and inclusive workforce. Haben does not see disability as something to be overcome, but rather one of the many facets of human diversity that can be used to build a better world. It is her belief that all obstacles, whether physical or psychological or technological, are created by humans and we each have a responsibility to remove those barriers that hold back others and ourselves.
Just as women have long struggled to have their voices heard in male-dominated industries, Haben wants the energy industry to include the voices of people with disabilities.
Haben believes disabilities are part of the human experience, and an opportunity to develop new solutions.
“I teach people to view disability as an opportunity for innovation.”