blog post: haben girma, surfer & 1st deafblind harvard law graduate (via black skater chick)

January 20, 2016

Haben Girma, 35, is the first deaf-blind Harvard Law Graduate and an avid surfer. Haben was introduced to the sport through the sub-genre of tandem surfing. The Encyclopedia of Surfing defines tandem surfing as “any two people riding the same board at once.” Originating in Hawaii during the early 1900s, tandem surfing involves a tall surfer (usually a man) lifting a shorter surfer (a woman) over his/her head in different positions. Both surfers must balance on the surfboard while shifting into poses and contortions reminiscent of yoga and gymnastics.

By Black Skater Chick’s Richie P.*, AFROPUNK contributor 

In a local interview at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas, California, Haben said: “Surfing is fun for me because it’s nice to be out in the ocean. The ocean is huge! And the ocean is symbolic of all the possibilities out there“(CB8, 2013). Haben’s life is also symbolic of the many possibilities available when one wants to succeed in a society where people with disabilities face discrimination. Born to Eritrean refugees, she had the opportunity to attend schools tailored to people with disabilities (which was not available to deaf-blind children in Eritrea) and she excelled in her studies, going on to attend Harvard Law School (NPR, 2015).In 2015, Haben introduced President Obama at the White House Celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, in 2013, she was awarded as the White House Champion for Change. Presently, a disability civil rights attorney, Haben works to advocate for others with deaf-blindness and the use of technology as a way to help them communicate.

(Girma, 2016)

Haben describes surfing as learning another way to communicate without the technology she uses daily (a digital Braille device) that is not compatible in water. She said, “I’ve been preparing for surf lessons by thinking about all the different ways people can communicate without using their voices or using hearing or vision,’ she said. ‘So thinking about tactile ways to communicate different surfing position, getting familiar with surfboards and getting familiar with the surf communicate’ (DailyMail, 2016).


Haben has conquered many turbulent waves in her life and now surfs over the undulations, literally. She defines success as emerging through trial and error: “Success comes about through lots of failure and I’m not afraid to fall. I’m not afraid to get in the water, try something new, look silly for a little bit” (Washington Post, 2016).

Check out Habena surfing at Surf Diva School!

Haben’s fearless attitude has not only helped her to excel in the field of law but also in surfing. She also enjoys kayaking and rock-climbing. It is a testament to her success today.

What excuses do you have? Get out there and surf! I am so inspired by Haben’s story. It also presents another discussion about disability within the skateboarding and action sports community.

Let’s Give Haben a Shout Out!
Follow Her on Twitter: @HabenGirma

Check out these videos to learn more about Haben’s life and her advocacy:
TEDTalk Introducing President Obama at 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

*This piece originally ran on Black Skater Chick, Richie P’s website.