Tag Archives: writing

Haban Girma First Deafblind Black Woman to Graduate From Harvard

Haban Girma Book Cover
Haban Girma Book Cover

Black History Month is quickly coming to a close and as promised I wanted to share about one more black person with a visual impairment. This person is not a historical figure from the past like Blind Tom but rather made recent history by being the first black, deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School.  Her name is Haban Girma and her first name means pride. She is from Eritrea and moved to the United States when she was a child.  She wrote a straight forward, no-nonsense  book about her life entitled Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.  

I read the book through my membership with the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, (NLS).  Unlike Bookshare, NLS provided this book in a commercial audio format so I got to actually hear Girma’s voice as she read her book. NLS books are not text to speech files; each book is read and recorded by a human being. The collection has about 65% fiction and 35% nonfiction. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are the most popular. There are also books in Spanish and a limited number in other languages. NLS is a free library service enacted by Congress that provides printed materials in audio and braille. NLS has regional network libraries that patrons contact to access books, magazines and other materials that are mailed to them via Free Matter for the Blind.  The books are sent as an audio digital cartridge and play on a specialized NLS player. This player is loaned to patrons from the library. But I usually  don’t want to wait for books to come in the mail so I download them via Braille Audio and Reading Download, more commonly known as BARD.  

Listening to Girma tell her story was very interesting and relatable. She shared about her childhood and the challenges of being deafblind especially the moments of isolation she experienced. There were times throughout the book were trying to reach out and engage with others was hard because people don’t get disability. But I appreciated her positive attitude and perseverance. She is not totally blind or totally deaf. She described her hearing loss by saying that when people spoke it sounded like “mumble, mumble.” She also said that traditional hearing aids didn’t work for the type of hearing loss that she had. She has residual vision and she described it as seeing “a parent on a couch as one blob atop another.”

As the years progress, her hearing and vision decreased and she learned how to use a white cane later moving to a guide dog. She also enrolled in a vision rehabilitation center to learn daily living skills and how to be more independent as a blind person. To better communicate with others, she started using a braille note device and Bluetooth keyboard. These pieces of adaptive technology allow Girma to communicate face-to-face with virtually anyone. The person can type on the keyboard, while she reads on the braille device and response verbally. This has helped her to not only communicate, but complete her education, practice law, maintain employment, travel around the world and meet and introduce former President Obama at a disability presentation at the Capitol.,

After reading Girma’s story I felt what an amazing woman! I felt especially proud because she is black and disabled and it is not very often that positive stories of people like myself are written. I left feeling very encouraged by her life and all that she has accomplished so far. Her desire to aim high and reach farther push me to do more of the same. If you want to read her book, and I encourage it, try listening to it in audio. You can check it out at NLS if you are disabled but if not try Audible.com.

Blind Tom a Georgia Slave Never Emancipated

Empish holding book on Blind Tom
Empish holding book on Blind Tom

This month is Black History Month.  To start things off I am posting a story that I previously published at the Center for the Visually Impaired and VisionAware. Later in the month I will share about another interesting blind African American. So stay tuned!

Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X,  and Fredrick Douglas – these are names of famous African-Americans that are well known and observed during this month. But this year I wanted to bring to your attention a famous blind man whose story is not typically in the history books or spoken about in daily conversation. Thomas Wiggins who was born a slave in Columbus Georgia in 1849 was an incredible musical performer and entertainer. From a very small age he traveled all over the US and Europe playing classical music and performing on stage to massive audiences. He was also known for having what we know today as autism and was a musical savant.

What makes his story so incredibly compelling and sad is that he was never fully emancipated. After the Civil War was over his parents signed an agreement with General James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor, to a five year contract of indentured servitude. During this time in history African-Americans who were newly freed and uneducated were not able to exercise their full rights, especially a former slave that was disabled. His parents felt that it would be better for him to be under the care and protection of someone they knew than to run the risk of him being abused or even stolen by strangers. This unfortunately began his life of permanent servitude; never being completely free until his death in 1908.

From the time he could walk, Tom developed a deep fascination with nature and sound. Once his master purchased a piano it was virtually impossible to keep Tom from being close to it and wanting to play.  His desire was so great that he became quite emotional and would literally throw temper tantrums if his wishes were not met. His master soon discovered that Tom had an incredible talent for music and could play very difficult pieces with little to no practice time. His master started to place Tom in minstrel and side shows around the country. He was known for being an obsessive and demanding child with a healthy appetite that continued into his adult life.

Tom was known for playing the piano for hours on end.  He would play Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical musicians. He even composed several pieces of his own. During his lifetime he was one of the most well-known pianists and made thousands of dollars for his owners which in today’s terms would be millions.

One of the most important things that contributed to Tom’s slavery and permanent servitude was the transfer of ownership. When he was a young musician and traveling across the United States he was owned by General Bethune. Then later ownership was transferred to his son, John Bethune. After John died in a train accident, he went back to General Bethune; but lost in a court battle to John’s wife, Eliza, who became Tom’s last and final owner. These transfers of ownership were all attempts to keep Tom and the money he made with little regard to his family. Tom’s mother made legal attempts in vain to free Tom but his owners were always able to elude the legal system. In 1904, Eliza, after 40 years of performing, took Tom off the road when he had a stroke and had difficulty playing the piano. Four years later Tom had another stroke that ended his life. Tom was buried in New York but the citizens of Columbus, Georgia raised a headstone in his honor in 1976. 

I first learned about Tom several years ago attending a performance of his life at a local community theater and I was captivated then and still am to this day. As a blind African-American woman, a descendant of slaves, and live in the South his story speaks to me in a very powerful way. Plays, films and books have all been written and performed to capture Tom’s incredible life story. There is also a websitedevoted to him and YouTube videos where you can hear his music. I found and read Two books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled in digital format. They are listed below:.

1.  The Ballad of Blind Tom by Deirdr O’Connell

2.  Blind Tom, the black pianist-composer: continually enslaved  by Geneva Southall

My Reflections on Life After Deaf

Life After Deaf Book Cover
Life After Deaf Book Cover

I was intrigued when I read the announcement at the DeKalb County Library for the reading and discussion on the book Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery by Noel Holston. I am not deaf but do have a sensory disability and because of people’s lack of understanding sometimes get lumped into the deaf community. I won’t get into all of that right now but will save for another time. In the announcement Holston wrote a memoir about losing his hearing, at age 62. He describes that it was virtually overnight, how he battled with his medical insurance provider, how it impacted his marriage and how he ultimately regained his hearing with a cocular implant. I was quite fascinated and decided to not only attend but read the book.

I downloaded the book from Bookshare, a great resource for books for people with print impairments. As I read, I quickly began to see similarities in his story and mine.  Even though Holston is older than me, deaf, married and a man, we had a lot in common. I found myself nodding my head and saying “Hmm, Hmm, that’s right!” like someone in the amen corner at church. 

The way he lost his hearing was overnight. he thought it was a sinus cold but later realized it was his hearing. I too started losing my vision rather quickly. My eyes began to tear up all of a sudden and became very sensitive to light. Like Dracula I would shrink away in pain when coming in contact with any form of light. By the time I got to the right doctor for a proper diagnosis I had some permanent eye damage that was not reversable.

We also were prescribed the same exact medications for our condition. I was diagnosed with bilateral uveitis, an auto immune disease that causes inflammation and retinal detachment. At the beginning I had a lot of inflammation and was on prednisone. What was supposed to be about 6 months ended up being 3 years on this drug. and what a rollercoaster ride that was! My doctor also prescribed methotrexate as well which Holston took too. Neither medication worked as a long-term solution for my visual impairment.

Another similarity I could relate to was dealing with isolation. Even though he was married and had friends and family Holston had difficulties with connecting. He shared openly and honestly the challenges of communicating as a deaf person. He talked about the myriad ways of trying to understand what people were saying, carrying around a note pad and pen, and dealing with services that didn’t offer email or text message options. Blindness can also be isolating too. When I lost my vision, I also lost the ability to pick up facial expressions. No more getting those small nuances such as raised eyebrows, grins, smirks, or rolling eyes. I was not able to see body language either. No more seeing hands waving, fingers pointing or shoulders hunching. The only thing I could go by is inflections in a person’s voice and my intuition. Also, since I move my head toward sounds, have an expressive face and have natural-looking eyes people think I can see better than I can and so assumptions are made and things get miscommunicated a lot. Sometimes assumptions are made about the abilities of the blind. That we don’t have a life, work, have fun, date, go out, etc. So, then we don’t get invites to events or are included; which leads to isolation.

Holston approached his journey into deafness with a wry sense of humor titling his chapters with puns and sharing mishaps along the way. One example is how he locked his keys inside his car with the engine still running. No spoiler alert here! You will have to read the book to find out how he got out of that situation because I am not going to tell!

He shared how much he liked Marvel Comics’ Daredevil; a blind lawyer who turns into a super hero fighting crime at night. He copes by focusing on his other senses through sight, smell and touch. He uses them to go walking, exploring nature, going to museums and reading books. The goal is to concentrate on what you have, take pleasure in that and not on what you don’t.

Empish and Author Noel Holston
Empish and Author Noel Holston

At the end of the library’s reading event, I spoke to Holston to share my appreciation for him writing Life After Deaf and how much his words, life and experiences resonated with my own journey of vision loss. We both realized that even though our disabilities are different learning how to cope and making peace with our situations is where we all can find common ground. He told me it was his hope the book would provide that opportunity for everyone.