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Overcoming Adversity: Q&A with Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib

Washington’s Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib brought a message of encouragement and self advocacy to students at Clark College’s disabilities breakfast on May 8.  

An accomplished politician, lawyer and professor, Habib has never let adversity stop him from achieving any of his goals despite his own disability.

Cyrus Habib addressing the crowd at the Disabilities Breakfast. (Matthew Phillips/The Indy)

The child of Iranian immigrants, Habib is the only Iranian American to hold statewide elected office in the U.S. He graduated several highly-ranked universities and worked as a lawyer before making the transition into politics.

Habib is also blind, after cancer took his eyesight at age 8.

“I often joke that because that was in 1989… all eight years that I could see, actually took place within the 1980s,” Habib said. “So all my visual memories are still from the 80s, so everyone still looks like Cyndi Lauper and Boy George.”

Habib recalled a story which taught him the importance of advocacy. He was in third grade when just months before, he had become blind. Habib recalled being watched like a hawk at recess by the recess monitors. He never felt like he had the chance to be a “normal” kid because a blind boy playing on the playground equipment could pose as a safety threat to both him and the school. Habib knew that was not how he wanted to spend his recess. One day, Habib went home and told his parents about the partial treatment and the next day, his mother went into the principal’s office and took him with her.  

“‘I’m going to take my son to your school over the weekend and I’m going to teach him how to get around the whole playground. He’s going to learn all the playground equipment,’ she said. ‘It may happen that you may slip and fall and he may even slip and fall and break his arm. That’s a fear that any mother has,’ she said. ‘I can fix a broken arm. I can never fix a broken spirit.’”

 

Cyrus Habib, Washington State’s current Lieutenant Governor (Courtesy Photo/Washington State Senate)

After his presentation, Lt. Gov. Habib sat down with the Indy’s Miguel Viveros to talk about Habib’s proudest moments, biggest challenges and advice for those with and without disabilities. 

  1. What hurdles have you run into throughout your career and how have you overcome them?

 

I think the biggest obstacle is people’s perceptions… at every stage there were still doubters…

I’ll give you an example of this. I was in the State House and then the State Senate. When I ran for Lieutenant Governor and won, people that I’d served with in the Senate said to me later, “You’re doing an amazing job as Lieutenant Governor… I got to confess to you, I didn’t really think that you would be able to do it. I didn’t know how you’d be able to do it. I had my doubts.” Which is nice of them to admit to me, but what I want to say to them is, “Dude, I was in the Senate with you. You saw that I was working at the top law firm in the state. I was a law professor. I was a state senator. You know that I’m a Rhodes scholar that went to Yale law school.”

I don’t get the benefit of the doubt or the benefit of the lived experience or having proven myself in some way for folks…so it gives me a lot of empathy for women who run for office, who always need to be proving something, even after they’ve already proven it… It’s still, “Well, what about this? What about that?” And it’s like, “Okay, can we look at history here?”

  1. What can abled people do to advocate for those with disabilities? How should they approach this in a respectable manner that doesn’t discredit the accomplishments of those with disabilities?

[Recently] one of my heroes, truly someone who was called a living saint by many people, Jean Vanier passed away. He was the founder of the L’Arche movement. The L’Arche communities are communities where people with and people without intellectual disabilities live together in community… [Vanier] said “people with disabilities have taught me about what it means to be a human. Because I have found I have been able to confront my own woundedness, by being, by living with and getting to know people with all different types of disabilities.”

So, put yourself in the position of another person. Just assume that they are similar to you in the sense of ‘would that be annoying if I asked that or not?’ And then don’t overthink it, just kind of do it… Recognize that you have a particular perspective that is informed by the challenges and obstacles that you faced. Just like you want empathy and understanding and compassion, so too does someone with a disability…

  1. In your speech you talked about having Obama’s support when you ran for office. What did it mean to you to have his support?

It was huge because he was an inspiration for me in ‘08 when he ran… I was one of those people that was so pro-Obama that I was like unreasonable. Like I lost some friendships over it, that’s how passionate I was. And it’s 10 years later, like I don’t burn with the same passion, but it’s more like a deep respect for him. And I hope that this isn’t true, but it’s possible that he may be kind of the last president with a certain type of dignity and statesmanship…

  1. My personal question to you, how do you respond to annoying questions? For instance, if people are asking you a question and you’re just like “really!”

It kind of depends on how hangry I am, like if I’m kind of just irritable. And I kind of recognize those patterns in myself… But if [the question] comes from a good place then I try to answer it and if it’s getting annoying, I kind of try to kind of point out to them that they’re being annoying without embarrassing them…There’s always some set of questions that are all similar. Kind of have your answers and just have them ready. So people ask me sometimes, “What’s the hardest thing about being blind?”

I think the inability to make eye contact is the worst part about being blind. I think that’s the hardest part about being blind. We are social creatures. There is a huge kind of a social economy that takes place in the unspoken communication and eye contact is a huge part of that. But eye contact is kind of the summit of that. But there’s also just visual cues…For some legitimate reasons, what I used to do and I still do with my friends, is like you might touch someone’s arm or something like that. Now obviously in politics you don’t want to have a Biden issue so you’re not… But I think touch is one way… that I would make up for for eye contact because I think it’s one way to establish an unspoken channel of communication between two people.

Much like Habib, I had to learn how to advocate for myself at a young age. Growing up in a small town as a blind child made me realize I had to speak up for myself. One instance that represents this occurred during my seventh grade year. I had a teacher who did not get my braille materials, so I needed to advocate for myself in order to get the materials I needed to learn.

Attending a small high school also helped grow my sense of self advocacy. During my junior year of high school, I had a conversation which would stick with me for a long time. I was conversing with my high school principal when he told me that I would not make it after high school. At the time, his statement affected me. I felt upset.

Despite his words, I knew I wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted to show him that he was discriminating against me because of my disability. I wanted to show my abilities and not let anyone discriminate against me.

Habib’s words stuck with me. It reminded me of the importance of being a role model for others. This is touching and hits close to home for me. I have inspired my little brother to go out and achieve his dreams. He tells me “Miguel I want to go to college.” – Miguel Viveros

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