Meet our Emcee: Cyrus Habib

Cyrus Habib, Keynote speaker for our Holiday Breakfast in December 2011, will be our emcee for the 2012 Redefining Vision Luncheon. We are excited about his continued involvement with the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind Foundation.

Cyrus makes his living as an attorney at Perkins Coie in Bellevue, WA.  Who he is and what he has accomplished will take a bit more space to explore.  Blind since the age of 9 due to a childhood cancer, retinoblastoma, Cyrus never let fear of the unknown hold him back. In an interview on the January, 13 2012 edition of KUOW Weekday (See complete interview HERE), Cyrus talks about how his parent’s attitude helped him shape his view on life:

“I was in third grade, and you know as kids do at recess time, all my peers would go and play on the jungle gym and monkey bars. And the recess monitors, knowing that I had just lost my vision and probably, I suspect, also knowing that my mother is a litigator, decided that it was too dangerous for me to be playing up on the monkey bars. So, they kept me by the side of the school with them: pretty segregated. So, this was hugely dispiriting. So, I went to my parents and I told them about how unhappy I was with the current state of affairs. My mom went to the school, she took me with her, and she said: I’m going to take my son to the playground on the weekends, I’m going to teach him how to get around the jungle gym, and he’s going to learn it as well as any other kid knows it. And, she said: I’ll sign any liability waiver you want, but he’s going to get on that jungle gym, and it may happen that he might slip and fall and break his arm, that’s a fear that any mother has. But, I can fix a broken arm I can never fix a broken spirit. My parents decided, as they told me years later that they were not going to let their fear become my fear. That really set the tone for me for life. This disability that I have at a young age is not going to affect my dreams or my pursuit of those dreams.”

Cyrus grew up in Bellevue, attending the Bellevue International School, which ranked 12th in the nation on Newsweek Magazine‘s list of the best high schools for 2007.  However, even the best institution can have weaknesses, and Cyrus amended his education through classes at Bellevue College:

“I am passionate about Bellevue College because years ago my high school’s inability to accommodate math and science classes had led me to take those portions of my high school curriculum there. Their creative approach towards teaching me topics that are seemingly entirely visual, instilled in me an enduring respect for the value of such institutions.”

In his first foray into higher education Cyrus studied Literature at Columbia University in New York, then at University of Oxford in the UK. In addition to being a Rhodes Scholar, Cyrus is also a Truman Scholar and a Soros Fellow. Upon graduating with a Masters in Literature, though, he switched his focus to attend Yale Law School. In an interview with friend and fellow Rhodes Scholar, Chesa Boudin (See complete article HERE) Cyrus explains his choice:

“I reached a point where I felt as though I was speaking into an echo chamber…  I decided that the issues I was addressing on a theoretical level, namely the relationship between visual experience and the formation of power dynamics, was in fact a phenomenon that could use my involvement outside the ivory tower. I realized that I would start with issues facing other blind individuals — not necessarily the most obvious ones — and see where that took me.”

While in law school, Cyrus was editor of the Yale Law Journal.  And, it was at Yale where he first became interested in the role currency plays in accessibility.

“As a first year law student at Yale, I learned of a recent court ruling in Washington D.C. District Court that U.S. currency is inaccessible to the blind because bills are only distinguishable visually. I was intrigued, and soon enough found myself wrapped up in that cause. I co-authored, along with another Rhodes Scholar and Yale classmate, Jonathan Finer, an amicus brief at the appellate level, authored an op-ed in the Washington Post and other forums, and eventually testified before Congress on how best to adapt U.S. currency to become accessible to America’s blind and low-vision population as well.”

Cyrus is a Human Services Commissioner for the City of Bellevue, and sits on the board of directors of the Bellevue College Foundation and the Bellevue Downtown Association. In 2009 he was appointed by King County Executive Dow Constantine to serve as a King County Civil Rights Commissioner. A former Trustee of the Washington Young Lawyers Division, he has served on a number of Bar committees and task forces. He is also active in the Bellevue Rotary Club. Cyrus is currently running for State Representative for the 48th District. In an article for the Washington Post in 2007 titled “Show us the Money”, Cyrus makes a call to action that the Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc. hopes to reflect:

“When it comes to accommodating disabilities such as blindness, let us continue to lead the world in practice as well as in principle. More important still, let us tell the world that we, too, believe that blindness should not be an obstacle to financial independence. In doing so, let us also take a significant step toward ameliorating the living conditions of blind Americans, now and for years to come.”

Part 1: Patricia Walsh, The Engineer

Keynote Speaker Patricia WalshOn May 23rd Patricia Walsh will be our Keynote Speaker at the 2012 Redefining Vision Luncheon. Patricia is the current principle for Blind Ambition Speaking where she offers motivational speaking, consulting, and training.  Patricia is the National champion for the Olympic distance and recently secured Bronze for the United States in the Short Course World Championship in Beijing, China 2011.  She has raced in over 12 marathons and ultra-marathons.  Last year, she set the world record for blind athletes.  Today, Patricia aspires to represent her country in the 2012 & 2016 Olympics in both track & field and triathlon. Before she became a world class athlete, Patricia was a college student working her way towards a career. In an interview with Allison Dunne for Northeast Public Radio (listen to the entire interview HERE), Patricia talks about her beginnings in college and at Microsoft and her efforts to find acceptance in her chosen field.

Patricia began her collegiate career seeking a degree in history and elementary education, but took a year off for financial reasons. During the summer of 2001, she attended a conference with Dr. John Gardner, who she had been working with to improve her computer skills:

“Actually, in working with Dr. Gardner in that year, I had been at a conference, and a woman came up to me and started talking to me about being in engineering. And, I wish I knew her name; I would thank her today. It never occurred to me that any person in the world would have the confidence in me to be an engineer. Like I really thought, I mean, that was the turning point; that’s when I thought it was off limits, and I thought that that was something that I just had to accept as a limitation. And I was just really trying to come to terms with that. And having one person in the world who was a random interaction who thought I was in engineering and saw that potential in me was all the motivation I needed to pursue it.”

So, Patricia went back to school focusing her studies in a new direction.

“I took this on firmly believing it would be an exercise in failure. I took this on thinking that even if I only last a term, I’ll be so much happier lifelong if I try. And my first term did not go well, (laughs) but I came back and did a second term and did not fail my second term, which, I’m always so thankful that I didn’t give up at the time when it really looked like I probably should have given up. . . I think it was a moment in time where I realized how badly I wanted to be an engineer, and how badly I wanted to know that I could be an engineer.”

Patricia says she “was getting a lot of resistance from my some of my professors and some teachers and lots of my family and people I was close to,” but like she mentions above, she felt she needed to try.

It was her mentor, Dr. Gardner, who pointed her toward AcessSTEM, a program directed by the DO-IT Center, or Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology at the University of Washington in Seattle. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. AccessSTEM is an online community where applicants learn about STEM fields, and get staff assistance with things like finding a summer internship or getting involved in a research project.

“It was a fantastic learning opportunity for me both in leading a research opportunity, but also in gaining some confidence, and, hopefully, producing some information or setting an example that others can follow to also pursue science and engineering.”

In March of 2005 Patricia received her Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Oregon State University. She then became one of the first blind engineers working for Microsoft. It was an opportunity worth overcoming a few challenges for.

“I had an experience awhile ago where there were some conversations going on that I wasn’t involved in where they were determining if I could own a feature or not based on my disability. By the time I was informed that those conversations were happening and that I wasn’t being involved, I was pretty upset about that because that’s very limiting to me. And you’ve got people who are making decisions for you who likely, again, well intentioned, but maybe don’t necessarily understand the tools you use, or don’t understand the access you do have. And that’s just a precedent you don’t ever want to allow set. You do not ever want the work to be given to you based on your disability.”

Patricia also has some advice for those who are unsure about reaching their career goals:

“Just keep your eyes and ears open for those opportunities that are there, and just don’t be afraid to pursue things, and don’t be afraid to put your foot in the door, and don’t be afraid to get knocked down and get back up, because that’s part of the life experience, and that’s, I would say, that’s just so key – to take those discouragements and accept that they’re going to happen, and accept that they’re going to be daunting every single time, but it’s still worth it to come back. I revel in how much further I am now than I ever thought was possible.”

Check back for Part 2 of this post: Patricia Walsh, The Athlete.  You can see more about Patricia Walsh at