Helen Keller’s Birthday: Beauty, Guide Dogs, And Deafblind Activist Haben Girma

It’s Helen Keller’s birthday! After becoming the first Deafblind person to graduate from college, she traveled the world teaching people about racial justice, gender equality, and other human rights issues. She lived from 1880-1968, and her birthday is an opportunity for us to deepen our understanding of the experiences of Deafblind people.

My name’s Haben Girma, and I was the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Some people call me the modern-day Helen Keller, but that’s not fair — she’s way more impressive!

You might notice my eyes in the photo are not symmetrical. My eyes dance, each one swinging to its own music. Keller also had asymmetrical eyes, and when she was growing up photographers took profile shots to conceal her left eye. In her thirties she had cosmetic surgery for her eyes. Yes, society’s beauty standards impact blind women. When Levi’s Beauty of Becoming campaign featured me, and my dancing eyes, it helped expand society’s definition of beauty. We’ve come a long way since Keller’s time, but we still have a long way to go.

I, Haben, an Eritrean American woman with long black hair, am sitting on a stool in front of a brown background and green leaves with pink floral arrangements. I'm wearing a denim jacket over a black top and white patterned skirt.
Photographer: the fabulous Shaniqwa Jarvis

Helen Keller loved dogs, and I do, too. Life feels sweeter, and safer, with a furry friend by my side. This is Mylo, and he’s a guide dog. Extensive training allows him to give me environmental information as we walk. He stops at stairs, navigates around obstacles, and can even follow hiking trails. He doesn’t know where I want to go, so he takes his cues from me. “Left,” “Right, and “Forward,” are some of the common instructions I give him as we make our way through the world.

I wish Helen Keller could have had a guide dog. America didn’t have guide dog schools for most of her life, and at first the schools wondered: how would a Deafblind person work with a guide dog?

Mylo, my German Shepherd guide dog, and I are both sitting in the warm sun. The grassy field extends behind us to the edge of a cliff, beyond which are tall ocean waves crashing against large rocks.

I learn so much information through my sense of touch. When my guide dog moves, vibrations travel up his harness to my hand. I immediately feel when he turns and stops. A gesture or word from me will have us gliding in a new direction. Walking with Mylo feels like a partner dance!

People criticized Helen Keller all her life claiming there is no way a Deafblind person could read, write books, and travel. But we can read and write braille with our fingertips, and our sense of touch, taste, and smell convey so much information about the world. I hope more people learn to fully engage their other senses today on Helen’s birthday, and every day.

Hiking with my Seeing Eye Dog Mylo
Video Description: I’m wearing a vibrant-blue blouse and white pants while hiking with my Seeing Eye dog. He’s a German Shepherd, confidently navigating the winding trail through the woods.

The Seeing Eye is the oldest guide dog school in the world, partnering thousands of blind people and Seeing Eye dogs since 1929. Mylo, the smartest, sweetest, and most joyful Seeing Eye dog, was born there. The school chose him to be my guide, and in 2018 I left a whirlwind trip in Europe to meet my new partner in Morristown, New Jersey. I spent several exhausting weeks training with him around Morristown and New York City. The strongest relationships, even those with humans, take time and effort. Three years later Mylo and I are still working on our relationship. That’s exactly how it should be.

I’m beyond grateful to The Seeing Eye and its many volunteers for raising phenomenal guides. Levi’s has generously pledged a donation to the school. Here’s hoping many more blind people, including those with additional disabilities, find their perfect match.

My guide dog Mylo & I are standing next to a statue of Frank Morris and his German Shepherd guide dog Buddy. The statue is in Morristown, NJ, and I was there in July 2018 to train with Mylo at The Seeing Eye.

Published in Levi’s Off The Cuff.

View This article on Levi.com.