By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer, IIP Digital (Managed by the U.S. Department of State)
Cyrus Habib visits a park during his campaign for election to the Washington state legislature.
Washington - Blind since childhood, Cyrus Habib says he “won the lottery of life.” That’s because he was born to parents with college educations, grew up in a neighborhood free from poverty and went to good public schools in Bellevue, Washington.
The advantages Habib had early in life formed the basis for his desire later on to work so that all students in Washington state could have the opportunity to obtain the education and job skills they need to compete in the world’s highly competitive marketplace, he said.
“Our greatest challenge is to build a 21st-century education system that ensures that every child can fulfill his or her potential,” said Habib, 31, who is believed to be the first American of Iranian descent elected to a state legislature. He noted that education is important from the first years of life, when cognitive skills develop, through college.
Habib lost the sight in one eye to a rare form of cancer as an infant. By age 8 and another bout with cancer he had lost all of his sight. He credits Washington state human services offices for giving him the opportunities to learn to use a blind walking cane, the Braille reading system and a computer with adaptive software.
He was first inspired to go into public service during secondary school and volunteered with the campaign to elect Gary Locke as America’s first Chinese-American governor. Locke is now U.S. ambassador to China.
While at Columbia University in New York where he studied comparative literature, Habib interned for Washington Senator Maria Cantwell and, later, for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who represented New York. There he helped individuals and businesses displaced by the terrorist attack on New York City in 2001 to relocate to neighboring states.
Habib and a fellow Rotarian staff an ice cream booth at a community event to raise money for the Bellevue Rotary Club.
After graduating, Habib studied English literature for three years at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar. He returned to the United States to study law at Yale University with the goal of going into the profession of his Iranian-born mother. His Iranian-born father is an engineer at Boeing Company, which manufactures aircraft.
“Were it not for our public school system, I would never have been able to go from Braille to Yale,” he said in an interview with the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.
At Yale, Habib became interested in the role that currency plays in accessibility. He testified before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, Trade and Technology about making dollar bills accessible to people with low or no vision.
Dollar bills are only distinguishable visually, the disability advocate said. “The inability of blind Americans to use U.S. currency independently precludes them from participating in entry-level jobs necessary for financial independence,” he told the subcommittee.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the U.S. Treasury Department to come up with a remedy in the next currency redesign, but the concept of changing the currency is being resisted by groups representing the vending machine industry and banks, Habib said.
With a law degree, Habib returned to Bellevue, which is part of the Seattle metropolitan area. He joined a law firm specializing in helping entrepreneurs establish technology companies. He noted that the metro area is a high-tech hub and home to the headquarters or major divisions of such companies as Microsoft Corporation, Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Nintendo of America Inc. - all companies that employ workers with skills in the so-called STEM subject areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He likes the area, he said, where about one-third of the population is foreign-born. He counts as friends people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Habib said the experience of working on the currency issue taught him the importance of addressing the concerns of all stakeholders in an issue. “The mark of a good legislator is the ability to listen and to understand and move through it to solve a problem,” said the state representative-elect, who will take office January 14, 2013.
A member of Bellevue’s Human Services Commission, Habib is active in his community’s service-oriented Rotary Club. He said his election to the legislature is a milestone for young Iranian Americans and encourages more to become active in public service.
“As a person of color, a son of immigrants and a person with a disability, my love of the United States is rooted above all in the fundamental principal of equality before the law,” he wrote during his campaign.
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