Embracing Our Differences Makes Us Great

November 3, 2016

By Ann Murphy

With the rancorous tenor of the political season permeating every waking hour, it’s difficult to feel hopeful for what’s next for the United States and for future generations.  Name calling, intolerance, fear mongering and outright nastiness have taken over the airwaves and the headlines.

But, there are glimmers of hope out there and there are people who espouse the very values that make our country great. These people illustrate the importance of our diversity and our differences and how these attributes are the key to helping us live our lives to the fullest.

nbp-haben-2Meet Haben Girma, a 28-year-old and the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School.  An African-American first generation immigrant, Haben was born deaf and blind and learned to read braille at the age of five. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she became a civil rights attorney at the California-based firm Disability Rights Advocates.  She left the firm earlier this year and now, instead of litigating against companies on behalf of the disabled, she became an instrument of change and an advocate for accessibility.  As a result of her efforts, Haben was recently recognized by President Obama as a White House Champion of Change.

Haben recently spoke at the Michael Driscoll Elementary School in Brookline to elementary school students who participate in the program “Understanding our Differences And Similarities.”  She communicated with the students through her braille note taker as an aide translated the students’ questions and comments from another device.

The students had insightful questions and addressed important things, such as what Haben liked to do in her free time. Her answer: she likes to dance swing and salsa and spend time with friends.  What is her favorite book? Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

Students also had many questions about how Haben navigates with the help of her guide dog Maxine. Haben talked about using Google Maps and how Maxine responds to commands.

The students were fascinated by Haben, who gave an example of overcoming barriers when she discussed what it took for her to learn how to surf.

“I love the ocean and beach and I wanted to learn how to surf. I contacted surf schools and most said ‘we can’t help you because we don’t know how to work with people like you.’  It was very frustrating. It’s not fair to discriminate against people. A teacher’s job is to teach and to be creative. That means being creative to find a solution to work for the student,” said Haben.

Haben doesn’t want the word “inspirational” to be used about her and others with disabilities and she had a strong statement on that for the students.

“We call people with disabilities inspirational without thinking about what we are saying or what we mean. I prefer using inspiration as a verb. I’m inspired to make my school more inclusive, I’m inspired to make my website more accessible… rather than saying that person is inspirational.”

Haben visited with the elementary school students as a precursor to her featured keynote address at the annual National Braille Press gala, “A Million Laughs for Literacy,” that was held on Friday, October 28 at the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston.  Haben’s remarks and her presence were a reminder to us all that it’s our differences that make us all better people and that what we perceive as challenges, for ourselves or in others, are actually opportunities to find solutions and positive outcomes.

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