Disability rights champion urges Cal State LA graduates to fight for justice

May 20, 2019

By Jillian Beck | Cal State LA News Service

Haben Girma, a disability rights advocate and the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, encouraged students in Cal State LA’s Class of 2019 to break down barriers and fight for justice.

Girma, a champion for equal opportunities for people with disabilities, delivered an uplifting keynote address on Monday during the Commencement ceremony for the Charter College of Education at Cal State LA.

“You’ve developed many skills and talents over the years. Please use your skills to remove barriers. Even if it’s a small barrier, it will make a huge impact for other students, teachers and everyone else who’s struggling,” Girma told hundreds of students who filled the rows of seats at the May 20 afternoon ceremony in the University Gymnasium. “Inclusion is a choice. The barriers won’t dismantle until we take the steps to remove them—and I hope you’ll all join me in making our world more accessible.”

Girma travels the world teaching the benefits of fully accessible products and services and has received honors from world leaders including former President Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. President Barack Obama named Girma a White House Champion of Change. Her memoir, The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, will be published in August.

Girma recounted her mother’s journey from Eritrea to Sudan in Africa and then to the United States as a refugee. She also described her own path to becoming an advocate for disability rights.

As an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark College in Portland she successfully fought for accessible menus in the cafeteria, an experience that motivated her to pursue a career in the law. 

“As the daughter of refugees, a black woman, disabled, lots of stories say my life doesn’t matter—I choose to resist those stories,” Girma said. “I define what disability means to me. The dominant story is disability is a burden on society and people with disabilities are incompetent. I define disability as an opportunity for innovation.”

“If you face a challenge you can come up with a solution, and in that process can develop a solution that benefits the entire community. We need to change the story of disability from one of charity and incompetence to one of innovation and talent,” she added.  

Cal State LA Professor Cheryl Kamei-Hannan, a faculty member in the Division of Special Education and Counseling, has a special connection to Girma: she was a teacher in Girma’s fourth grade class. Kamei-Hannan was inspired by Girma to complete a credential and continue in the field of visual impairment and blindness, and has now worked in the area for more than 15 years.

The Charter College of Education has renowned programs in visual impairment and orientation and mobility. The credential program prepares teachers to work with youth who are blind and visually impaired, including those with multiple disabilities. The Orientation and Mobility Program, which is more than 50 years old, is one of only two in California and 16 in the nation. The program prepares specialists to provide instruction in independent movement and travel skills in home, school and community settings for individuals with visual impairments of all ages.

In his remarks at the ceremony, President William A. Covino noted the evolving landscape of society, emphasizing the new graduates’ roles in shaping the future through their leadership in education.

“During your time here, advances in technology gave us new tools for teaching, new ways to help educate and unlock the potential of students, new ways to meet the challenges faced by urban schools,” Covino said. “And you, Class of 2019, you are the creators of tomorrow.”  

The first day of Commencement also featured an honorary doctorate recipient: Antonia Hernández, president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation, one of Southern California’s most active and largest philanthropic organizations. Hernández delivered engaging remarks to undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Arts and Letters.

About 6,000 students will receive diplomas during 15 ceremonies that will run through Friday afternoon. Thousands of guests are expected to attend the festivities.    

For a schedule of the ceremonies and other details, please visit the Cal State LA Commencement webpage.   

Photo: Disability rights advocate Haben Girma addresses graduates in the Charter College of Education at Cal State LA. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 28,000 students and has more than 245,000 distinguished alumni.

Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.