[nfbwatlk] For blind lawmaker, biography reflects in policy, The Nordonia Hills News Leader, March 5 2013

Philip Blackmer pblackmer27 at gmail.com
Thu Mar 7 05:19:59 UTC 2013

""What I've appreciated is his willingness to listen thoughtfully when
someone else has a different viewpoint and to craft a solution that reaches
that common ground," Smith said."  Norma is very gracious and considerate.
I really should call her up and see what insight she has in Washington
politics right now.  I also wonder what she thinks about Cyrus Habib.

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Nightingale, Noel
Sent: Wednesday, March 06, 2013 1:58 PM
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Subject: [nfbwatlk] For blind lawmaker, biography reflects in policy, The
Nordonia Hills News Leader, March 5 2013


For blind lawmaker, biography reflects in policy MIKE BAKER Associated Press
Published: March 5, 2013

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Behind his sunglasses, Rep. Cyrus Habib is reaching
back in memory, trying to recall the name of another fully blind politician
who came before him.

This was someone who served many years ago, Habib recalls. In the U.S.
Senate. The grandfather of writer Gore Vidal. Habib rattles off a few
details before surrendering: "Let me look him up."

Turning to a laptop that provides him constant audio feedback, Habib needs
just 23 seconds to launch his Internet browser, run a query and find the
information he's looking for -- a biographical overview of former Oklahoma
Sen. Thomas Gore.

"There's a picture of him here from 1908," he says. "How does he look?"

At just 31 years old, Habib has mastered skills to bypass the limitations of
his disability, and that has allowed him to trace a remarkable life
trajectory. At age 8, he completely lost his eyesight to cancer but
nonetheless went on to become a black belt in Karate, a jazz pianist, a
Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, an editor of the law review at Yale and an
attorney at a prestigious Seattle-based firm.

Now he's Washington state's first blind lawmaker in decades, and his life
story is in many ways reflected in the policies he's now championing.


Half-jokingly, Habib says that he imagines everyone still looks like Cyndi
Lauper and Boy George -- celebrities from the last time he was able to see.

He was just 4 months old when his parents received his cancer diagnosis. It
was retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer affecting the retina that
typically strikes children. He lost sight in one eye when he was 2 and spent
much of his childhood in painful medical procedures and grueling

Habib's treatment came from a range of specialists, including leading
doctors at Johns Hopkins, New York Hospital and the Wills Eye Institute in
Philadelphia -- all largely covered by his engineer father's medical

Now, the care he received as a child is something Habib considers as the
Legislature explores ways to provide medical coverage for children.

"It is unthinkable to me that there would be a child, God forbid, that would
experience a life-threatening illness and not have health insurance," he

Despite all the medical intervention, Habib's vision deteriorated, and the
retinoblastoma ultimately forced doctors to remove his retina at age 8. It
didn't come as a surprise to him. And today he offers an optimist's
reflection on the loss, saying it came at perhaps an ideal age, when he was
old enough to retain a strong visual archive of his surroundings but young
enough to adapt.

The family soon afterward moved from Baltimore across the country to the
Bellevue area, where Habib began his new challenge of trying to live a
normal life without sight.

His mother, Susan Amini, recalls the day he came home from Somerset
Elementary School in the third grade and complained about his recess
teacher. Fearful of his safety, the teacher wouldn't let him on the
play-yard jungle gym and instead kept him close by and away from the other
kids. He wanted to be out on the gym and jumping on obstacles like his

Amini went to the school, signed a waiver releasing the school of liability
if her son got hurt and then the two spent evenings and weekends learning
the playground, including safe ways to navigate the jungle gym and the
location of a tree stump that had sharp edges. Instead of avoiding the
obstacles, he sought them out, even when his mother wasn't there to watch

"When I would go pick him up, he would be the one on top of everything," she


In developing the skills to cope, Habib received a variety of training, and
he makes sure to note where.

He learned to use a walking cane from the Washington State Department of
Services for the Blind. Borrowing books from the Washington Talking Book &
Braille Library helped him master reading. He learned how to use
text-to-speech software through training at the Washington State School for
the Blind.

Without those state-supported opportunities, Habib says, he couldn't have
gone from "braille to Yale."

Now, as Washington lawmakers look to find new money to pay for basic
education in the state, one proposed place to get extra cash is to cut
social services. Habib said he rejects the premise that education and social
services are competing interests and that they actually work together.

"I get very worried because my own biography leads me to believe that,
especially for those children whose challenges are most pressing, social
services are often what make the critical difference," Habib said. "It's
going to be very difficult for a student, no matter how good their teacher
is and principal is, it's going to be very difficult for them to learn if
they are couch-surfing with their parents at night."


At a recent hearing of the House Technology & Economic Development
committee, lawmakers rapidly moved through a series of bills. Each had
extensive written summaries and some included dense amendments.

One was a major tax-incentive initiative that Habib himself proposed.

In his seat on the committee, where Habib serves as vice chair, he sometimes
leaned over to whisper to colleagues. Occasionally, fellow Rep. Gael
Tarleton guided his hand to the right spot on sheets of paper where official
votes get recorded. But, mostly, Habib was on his own, with his sunglasses
on, laptop opened in front of him and a small earbud in one ear.

His text-to-speech software chirps at him in an almost indecipherable way,
moving so quickly that an untrained ear can only catch parts of what the
computer is saying. But Habib has no troubles keeping pace.

The software helps him to handle the massive volumes of reading required of
lawmakers, allowing him to rapidly skim through even the lengthiest bills,
and keep abreast of changes in their wording. In his ear, the voice changes
in pitch when encountering things like words that have been selected for
elimination under a proposed law.

Habib is apparently the first blind lawmaker in the Legislature in more than
50 years, when Francis Pearson was representing southwest Washington.

Even though Habib is a freshman, he has stood out. The Democrat was named as
the vice chair of the technology and economic development committee because
of his expertise on legal issues in that sector. At the Seattle law firm
Perkins Coie, he focused his work on start-up technology companies, working
on issues such as licensing and technology.

One of his first proposed laws this year was a plan to create a $1 million
annual business tax deduction to start-up ventures, targeting high-tech and
manufacturing industries that may be poised for long-term job growth.

Republican Rep. Norma Smith said she has been working over the years to
develop ways to spur such economic growth. When Habib came into the
Legislature with similar ideas, she noted, he quickly reached out to
colleagues to get input and develop a plan.

"What I've appreciated is his willingness to listen thoughtfully when
someone else has a different viewpoint and to craft a solution that reaches
that common ground," Smith said.

Habib's bill passed out of committee with bipartisan support.

While Habib sometimes uses his walking cane around the Capitol, he often
shuttles from hearings to the House floor hooked to the arm of a staff
member or colleague -- sometimes a Republican. He said it was one of the
misunderstood benefits of his blindness, allowing people of different
perspectives to come together and discuss issues.

"I take the opportunity to walk with them," Habib said. "That creates a bond
and reminds us that we're really all going to the same place."


Follow AP Writer Mike Baker on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/HiPpEV
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