Women's Empowerment

When Haben Girma Became the First Deafblind Person To Graduate From Harvard Law, I Learned That I, Too, Could Make a Difference

Milagros Costabel

Photo: Cover of Haben Girma's book, published by Twelve; Graphic: W+G Creative
Who has inspired you? Challenged you? Shaped you? In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing the women who made us who we are today. To all who came before, the mothers, grandmothers, mentors, teachers, and trailblazers… thank you.

Dear Haben,

They say you can find inspiration for your life in the most unexpected moments. “Do you know Haben Girma? She’s the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law!” a friend said to me, super excited, after stumbling upon your story.

To my friend, your story sounded amazing. But to me—who, at the time, didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my life—it had another dimension altogether.

Throughout my life, I have had very few role models who share my disability and who also happen to be women. Andrea Bocelli, with his incredible voice, instilled in me a passion for singing; and Ray Charles, with his incredible piano skills, inspired me to start playing music and never stop. But the imprint you left on me was different.

From seemingly small actions, like making your university cafeteria menu accessible, to much bigger things, like winning a case against a large digital publishing company—laying the groundwork to make digital content accessible to all—you not only showed the world that barriers can be broken, but you took concrete actions that led to real change.

Ever since I heard about you, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would like to do the same. I live in a society where, for the most part, people with disabilities often don’t have access to those tools that allow us to fight for our dreams—and in many cases, to dream at all. Empowerment—that which I feel when listening to your words—is not something that is usually found here. So, while I have dreamed nonetheless, until that day when I read your story, I didn’t dare to think that my dreams could come true.

I live in a society where, for the most part, people with disabilities often don’t have access to those tools that allow us to fight for our dreams—and in many cases, to dream at all.

Beyond the differences in disabilities—I am only totally blind, while you are also deaf—I feel that our experiences collide in many ways. I too graduated from a mainstream high school, along with sighted classmates, and as a child I learned that advocating for myself was the best way to have my needs taken into account .

My parents, like yours, always instilled in me that I had to do something beyond what was expected of me. Society’s expectations were not high, but those of my parents (who never graduated from high school and dreamed that I would have what they could not) were all I needed to keep seeking opportunities and overcoming obstacles.

From access to information to the possibility of receiving a decent education, rights for people with disabilities in my country, Uruguay, are still far from being completely fulfilled. When I was little, for example, my mother learned Braille so she could teach it to me, and for six years, when I was in elementary school, she transcribed all my work so I could be educated alongside my sighted peers. But not all families have that possibility, and most of them are left behind and become part of the statistics—statistics that show that more than 35 percent of people with disabilities in my country did not have access to any kind of education.

My desire to change things and the realization that it could be possible would not have come had I not seen my desire to change the world reflected in all that you have done. The changes you made are already great. But the changes you unknowingly pushed for, just for the sake of changing things and showing that other people can do the same, went even further. When I found you, I found a world in which people with disabilities are no longer simply witnessing our stories, but fighting to change and improve them, not only for ourselves, but for others. A world full of empowered and strong women fighting for great causes and winning victories. A world that, at all costs, I needed to be in.

And so I did. From that moment on, my fight for the rights of people with disabilities became a reality. I began to give lectures for international organizations, to write articles bringing hidden realities to light, and to raise my voice with all my strength in the face of a system that is still not ready for us.

That path also took me—at 18 years old—to Harvard, that place so far away and unthinkable for someone like me. That scholarship, which I won a little less than three months ago, will not only give me the possibility to study in one of the best universities in the world, but will allow me to open doors so that other women with disabilities can reach these places and become agents of change in their communities. And my achievements, although they are my own work, are also thanks to you and the path that your actions have marked for me. Because sometimes it is enough to show what is possible to change the world.

Looking for more Strong As Her? Check out these letters from chronic illness advocate Nitika Chopra, Emmy-Award-winning broadcast journalist Mara Schiavocampo, and Well for Culture founder Chelsey Luger

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