Reading, in Braille, from Haben: the Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law

The wall of Ethiopian spices made this the most aromatic reading I’ve ever done! As my hands glided across Braille, the tantalizing fragrances of Berbere, basil, and warm spiced butter formed an uplifting scent-scape. Cafe Colucci in Oakland generously hosted this book talk in their beautiful restaurant and spice shop. Thank you! I’m also grateful for Pam Johnson ASL interpretation. Last but not least, thank you to everyone who joined us for delicious food, drinks and stories!

The reading is an excerpt from Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma with a Forward by Stephen Curry.

Video Description: Pam Johnson stands beside me, signing in American Sign Language as I speak. I’m sitting at a table reading from a short stack of Braille pages, and my German Shepherd Seeing Eye dog Mylo rests by my feet. Holding a microphone for me, because I need two hands to read, is Daniel Aderaw Yeshiwas, our host and the manager of Cafe Colucci. Behind us stretch long shelves full of colorful bags of spices.

World Braille Day 2024

It’s World Braille Day! A blind teacher named Louis Braille created this tactile reading system, and now his birthday, January 4, is a day to celebrate this marvelous way to read!

Braille exists in multiple languages, and I recently had the honor of meeting Sabriye Tenberken, also blind, who invented and taught Tibetan Braille.

In the age of audiobooks and AI, do you think Braille reading will die?

Descriptive Transcript

(Sabriye and Haben are sitting next to each other in an auditorium, a sign behind them says, “Kanthari.” Sabriye is a white woman in her fifties with a German accent, and Haben is a Black woman in her thirties with an American accent. As Sabriye speaks, Haben is reading her words on a Braille display.)

Sabriye: So, what I really like about your approach is that you are such a Braille fan and I’m a Braille fan, too. We should both advocate for Braille and make sure that people don’t think that Braille is just old-fashioned, or something ancient. We should empower the blind to understand that Braille is a good old technology that should just be transported into the digital age.

(Typing sounds. Haben reads on the Braille display.)

Haben: There is digital Braille. We can continue modernizing Braille, and I have a Braille device right here that I’m using as a Deafblind person. It’s my access to spoken language as well as to books. Literacy starts with being able to touch the words. Being able to feel it with your fingers gives you so much more access, and I hope teachers continue teaching Braille all over the world.

Visiting Kanthari, a social impact institute in India

Inspiration should lead to action. A blind woman who invented Tibetan Braille and overcame political red tape and ableism, Sabriye Tenberken both role models and teaches social impact. Want to start an NGO? Need help finding donors? Want advise navigating oppressive bureaucracy? Take the course at Kanthari, this social impact institute I was very lucky to visit!

Visit kanthari.org and follow @kanthariTV.

Descriptive Transcript

(The video starts with Haben Girma, a Black woman in her thirties with an American accent, sitting in a large auditorium. Behind her is a stage with a sign that says Kanthari.)

Haben: I know there are many people out there who want to change the world, who have excellent ideas that are going to help people. But maybe you’re not sure exactly how to do that.

(A photo of Paul Kronenberg, a tall white man in his fifties who looks thoughtful as he types on a keyboard propped on his lap. Haben sits across from him with a braille display on her lap. They’re both beneath an open-air thatch domed gazebo, surrounded by a vibrant green forest.)

Haben: I’m currently at Kanthari in South India. It’s an organization to teach dream-makers on how to create organizations that help communities.

(A photo of Haben and Kantharis — a multigenerational group of people from different countries, gathered around a long table: Chacko Jacob, Riya Orison, Surji SI, Malak Alamar, Cornelia Tenberken (Sabriyes mother), Aanand Nagvanshi, Sara Tandel, and paul — smiling as Sabriye Tenberken speaks.)

Haben: Sometimes it’s about disability access, sometimes it’s about the environment. All of us have ways we can help our communities, and we should take time to learn how to do that.

(A photo of Paul, Sabriye, Cornelia, Haben, and Haben’s Seeing Eye dog Mylo sitting in the gazebo, enjoying coffee and cookies.)

Haben: There are scholarships to help people who want to take this course. So if you’re interested in learning how to help your community, please go to kanthari.org.

(Sabriye and Haben are sitting next to each other in the auditorium. Sabriye is a white woman in her fifties with a German accent.)

Sabriye: So today we are so lucky that we have Haben here from the U.S. and a lot of our Kantharis talked to her already and they are so inspired by her words, by her story, by her history. And yeah, I cannot say how glad we are and how lucky we are to welcome you here in the, in Kerala, the south of India.

Haben: It is an absolute honor to actually meet you! I read about Sabriye’s story when I was a kid. She wrote a book called “My Path Leads to Tibet,”

(A photo of the book cover showing Sabriye holding her cane, and kneeling beside a child. The text says, “My Path Leads to Tibet: the Inspiring Story of the Blind Woman Who Brought Hope to the Children of Tibet.”)

Haben: and I learned about a blind woman from Germany who went to Tibet and helped build a school. And I realized when I grow up, I could also help blind and disabled people around the world. And today, I am meeting one of my heroes —

(Sabriye blushes and laughs.)

Haben: at her institute, where she is training more students to learn how to change the world, how to help their communities. What do you recommend people do?

(Text appears on screen: “to support: go to www.kanthari.org.”)

Sabriye: If you want to support us financially, you’re always welcome. But for example, you can also spread the news and ask people who have dreams for social change to apply. And of course, if you have any skills that are helpful, why not coming along and being a catalyst here in this program?

(A photo of Haben standing outside with four Kantharis Aanand from Delhi, Sara from Mumbai, Malak from Jordan, and Karan Singh from Nepal. Everyone is smiling. There is a brick wall and trees in the background.

Haben: They are going to be sharing their stories on December 15 and 16, and we hope you’ll be able to join in and tune in to catch these stories. Go to kantharitalks.org to register and be able to learn from change-makers from 11 different countries.

Haben Appointed Commissioner of the WHO Commission on Social Connection

The top left of the image shows Haben Girma, a Black woman in her thirties wearing a thoughtful expression. The top right has a stylized letter C, and below that is text: "We know constraints become catalysts for innovation. Understanding how people with different bodies/minds resist isolation is critical. To increase social connection, listen to disabled people. Haben Girma WHO Commissioner on Social Connection. WHO Commission on Social Connection, World Health Organization.”

I have exciting news to share: the World Health Organization (WHO) has appointed me Commissioner of the new Commission on Social Connection! The WHO established this new Commission because loneliness and social isolation impact public health around the globe. As someone who struggled with isolation, as a Deafblind woman in a sighted, hearing world, as … Read more

Learning Mexican Sign Language

Learning Mexican Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is different from Mexican Sign Language (LSM). A patient & gifted Deaf LSM instructor, Yahir Alejandro taught me these signs. Will you, too, learn LSM or your local sign language?

For more from Yahir, follow him on Instagram @YahirAlejandroRM.

Video description: Yahir is a young, sighted, Deaf man, and Haben is a Deafblind woman in her thirties. She has her left hand over Yahir’s right hand at the beginning of the video and near the end to feel his signs.

Yahir signs and Haben voices: Uno, dos, tres.

Both sign first in American Sign Language, then in Mexican Sign Language while Haben voices: Hello. Hola. Good morning. Buenos días. Good afternoon. Buenas tardes. Good night. Buenas noches.

Haben signs to Yahir while voicing: Thank you. Gracias.

Yahir signs to Haben while she voices: You’re welcome. De nada.

Yahir signs to the camera (Haben still voicing): You wanna learn LSM? Follow me! Para aprender más LSM, sígueme.

The video ends with both of us smiling and applauding.

Binational Forum of Deaf Culture

I’m sitting on stage with disability advocate and Deaf educator Yahir Alejandro. We’re signing ILY and holding up my book between us.

Serving as the keynote speaker for the first Binational Forum of Deaf Culture, I met many passionate advocates working to increase accessibility in Mexico. Some things I learned: The state of Sonora officially recognized Mexican Sign Language (LSM) as a language in 2022, thanks to the Deaf community’s awareness campaign. There is an extreme shortage … Read more

Indeed

My Seeing Eye dog and I stand beside a tower of three, slightly rotated blocks. The bottom one has a purple background and says, “Indeed” in big white letters. The middle cube says, “the future of work is better” on one side and the other side has an image of three people cooking. The top cube says, “we can make work less biased.”

Society tells disabled job seekers, “Just work harder.” But many already exceed the efforts of non disabled people. It’s employers who must work harder to fight ableism. Grateful to be able to share this message with HR professionals during my keynote at Indeed FutureWorks!