San Diego

Deaf-Blind Graduate of Harvard Law School, White House Honoree Challenges Self and Learns to Surf in San Diego

The first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School — a White House honoree — challenged herself to do something outside her comfort zone: learn how to surf.

Haben Girma hit the waves Saturday at San Diego's Swami State Beach. 

Girma, honored as a White House Champion of Change, works as a civil rights advocate for people with disabilities. Saturday marked her second day of surfing on a special board for a tandem lesson with coach Matt Allen of the Maui Surf Academy. 

Girma said she decided to try her hand at surfing to challenge herself and reached out to Larry Graff of Swamis Surfing Association.

"I’m also deaf-blind, so the way I learn and approach the world is slightly different, so I need to think up alternative techniques for accessing information," Girma explained.

She said her goal in activities like surfing is to learn as much as she can, because success comes after a lot of failure.

"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."

Girma said the way she communicates changes when she's in the ocean. 

"There's the challenge of technology not working in the water," Girma said. "So I'm excited to be having a lesson with Matt and to learn to surf, and see where we can go without technology and with the opportunities of physical communication and the ocean and a wonderful surf team."

Girma joined Disability Rights Advocates in 2013 as a Skadden Fellow and became a staff attorney in 2015. She lives in Berkeley.

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