OLYMPIA — 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.
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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 chemotherapy.
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 insurance.
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 said.
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 peers.
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 him.
“When I would go pick him up, he would be the one on top of everything,” she said.
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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. In fact, he said, 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.”
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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.”