Berkeley civil rights attorney Haben Girma was appointed the first deaf and blind board trustee of Helen Keller Services for the Blind on Thursday.
Founded in 1893, Helen Keller Services is a national organization that is based in New York and helps visually impaired, blind or deaf and blind individuals lead independent lives. Girma, who grew up in Oakland and San Leandro, attended Lewis & Clark College for her undergraduate degree and became the first deaf and blind graduate of Harvard Law School in 2013.
She currently works to improve access to technology and education as a Skadden Fellowship Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal center for disability rights located in Downtown Berkeley.
“I’m passionate about disability rights work because it’s a background in which I have personal knowledge, and I can use that knowledge to help others,” Girma said.
Girma first became involved with Helen Keller Services four years ago through Deaf-Blind Young Adults in Action, a leadership program organized by a subsidiary organization, the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. The center’s executive director, who met Girma through the program, asked her to join the board to offer a new perspective as a member of the deaf and blind community.
“She’s someone we’ve admired for many years and a wonderful role model,” said Sue Ruzenski, executive director of the Helen Keller National Center. “We are all excited and thrilled that she’s going to be a part of this, and we’re looking forward to opening new doors.”
As a trustee, Girma’s responsibilities include voting on key issues such as the creation of new programs and strategic plans for expansion in the next five years, Ruzenski said. Ruzenski cited Girma’s work in advocacy and her connections in the disability community as strengths she would bring to the position.
“I think she’s going to be a big asset to that national group, bringing her perspective,” said Larry Paradis, executive director and co-founder of Disability Rights Advocates. “She has forged her way into the front line of people with disabilities.”
At the Disability Rights Advocates office, Girma has no trouble scheduling meetings, responding to emails and navigating the workplace, according to receptionist Glenda Beamon. Girma, who has limited hearing and vision, trained herself to communicate verbally by speaking at a frequency she can hear.
“Everyone has their own challenges, and they’ll find their own ways to adapt,” Girma said. “Some people adapt better than others, but we all have the capacity to adapt.”
At her current job, Girma has engaged with UC Berkeley students who have disabilities and has identified barriers they face, Paradis said. She has worked on existing cases and identified new ones, and she is one of the key attorneys in a case against Scribd to make e-books accessible to blind readers.
“Technology has changed the lives of people with disabilities,” Girma said. “Our role as lawyers is to make sure that developers know to build accessible technology.”
Stuart Seaborn, a senior attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, praised Girma’s “bright outlook” and willingness to find solutions.
“We’re used to working in a narrow area … but I think Haben approaches it from a more global perspective,” Seaborn said. “It could be because she’s coming in fairly fresh out of law school, but also, she has had to think of new solutions her whole life, and she brings some of that creativity to her practice.”