Article By: Megan Wildhood
On May 19, which also happened to be the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), SPU’s Center for Learning, School of Theology, School of Business, School of Psychology, Office of Student Life, Theatre Department and other sponsors hosted the first annual “No Limits, No Boundaries” event centered on disability.
After being welcomed by Cindy Price, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and then watching an introductory video demonstrating the hesitancy and awkwardness with which people often try to describe and discuss disability, three SPU undergraduates generously shared pieces of their experiences living with disabilities.
First to share was Garrett Mullet, a junior triple-majoring in Business Administration, Global Development, and International Economics. Garrett is severely dyslexic but did not discover it until his junior year of high school. Completing tests and reading assignments took him much longer than his classmates, which was difficult and frustrating for him. But with determination and support, he is not only passing his classes, he is excelling in school. “Disabilities are diverse and the process of dealing with them is different for each person. We can turn something the world sees as a weakness into a strength.”
Amanda Banks, a freshman studying Exercise Science, echoes both the challenges of dyslexia and the rewards of overcoming it. Amanda carried the pain of being the last one to hand in a test (and not knowing why until later in her high school career as well), the confusion of loving books but hating reading, and the struggle of depression. She vulnerably and bravely shared how she emerged from this darkness in a vignette entitled “Merely Three.” Though a summary hardly does her stirring words justice, the title of her piece refers to how many walls there are holding her in and back from the world.
The last student to share was Ali Steenis, a sophomore majoring in Business Management. She is a student, competitive horseback rider, and follower of Christ. She is also blind and asks why is it that one word has the power to dictate her identity. When people see her with her guide dog, they ask her if she’s training it for someone else, as if blind people don’t actually come out in public at any point. “It’s not going to work for me to stay in my bat cave and not interact socially like society tells us to,” she said. “We should be defined and identified by how we choose to live our lives. Let us not identify people in ways they do not identify themselves.”
Keynote speaker, Cyrus Habib, Washington State Senator for the 48th District (Bellevue/Redmond), took the mic next. His parents came from Iran, his father went to the University of Washington in 1970 and his mother later to University of Maryland. He was born in Baltimore, which he feels fortunate about, primarily because he received phenomenal care from Johns Hopkins for retinoblastoma. The doctors were able to save his life after three rounds of cancer treatment, but they could not save his sight. He became blind at age eight, which was in 1989, so to this day, everyone still “[looks] like Cindy Lauper in [his] mind.”
Habib then relayed a few simple episodes of his life as a frame to understand his relationship with disabilities. When he was in third grade at a Bellevue elementary school, during recess he was kept by the side of the school away from the other kids playing on the jungle gym, monkey bars and swings. His mother, an attorney, was determined to teach her son how to advocate for himself. She helped him familiarize himself with that playground – though he might slip and fall and break an arm, that’s a fear any mother has; “I can fix a broken arm, but I can’t fix a broken spirit.” As strong as the urge is to protect, if taken too far, it can suffocate. Habib’s dad took him skiing and would yell, “Left, now right, now left” from 15-20 feet behind him on the slopes, “which is a lot like politics,” he commented. As an only child, Senator Habib acknowledged how hard it must have been for his parents to let him take such risks.
When he was in graduate school in England, Habib was eager to fit in and downplay his blindness. He was at a bar with friends, and some girls came over and started talking to them. One asked why he was wearing sunglasses inside and he said, “Oh, well, it’s part of my outfit.” When his friend later asked why he didn't just tell her he was blind, Habib said, “I just figured that would kill the moment, kill the attraction.” His friend referred him to the book “The Ant and the Peacock.” Though paradoxical at first glance, both creatures have confounded evolutionary biologists for centuries – ants with their altruism and peacocks with their beauty as a source of disability (when we think of camouflage being essential in nature). There was something about resilience in this discussion that Habib took to heart.
Senator Habib closed with one final snippet: During his first year of law school, in a civil procedures class they discussed a New York Times article that detailed a lawsuit where the claimants argued that the $1, $5, $10 and $20 bill denominations were indistinguishable by size and texture to blind people and therefore discriminatory. Habib acted as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) and wrote a brief supporting a remedy. Not only are blind customers unable to verify change given with any sort of purchase, but blind people would not be able to work at entry-level jobs, which makes it that much harder to get one’s next job. Before the recession in 2008, the unemployment rate among blind people was 70 percent. The ruling ultimately went against the government, declaring that the Treasury Department needs to redesign the bills. This in turn would affect vending machines, as they would need to be altered to accept the new currency. However, Congress has yet to do anything about the ruling, and the vending machine lobby has shown opposition to the decision. Congress has suggested cutting the corners on bills differently and Habib quipped, “I just like [to state that] because it’s Congress being honest about cutting corners.”
During the question and answer time, a SPU senior asked Habib’s opinion on whether individuals with disabilities need “fixing,” referencing a viral video documenting a 29-year-old woman hearing for the first time thanks to medical advances. He answered, “This is just me but if someone came and said to me there was a pill I could take that would make me see again, I would 100% see again. But that doesn’t mean I regret my life.”
Another audience member asked Senator Habib what sort of bills he is working on that relates to his personal story. He explained that one of the most important bills to him is one that would raise the cigarette tax 50 cents to fund cancer research. He is also working with Washington State to administer the Federal Able Act, which allows tax-free savings for people with disabilities for technologies or accommodations of various kinds without that income counting towards social security limits.
Another audience member asked Habib for examples of accommodations or motivational teachers in his life. He relayed a funny story about a mentor who encouraged him that in New York, it’s actually really easy to get around if you have a disability because everyone’s bumping into each other anyway and people don’t have any sense of personal space. Another mentor made topographical maps of France with a glue gun and sandpaper that helped Habib learn. That mentor’s dedication to geography Habib will never forget.
In response to a question about practical tips for putting together resources for assistive technology, Habib reminds us that everyone learns differently and encourages educators to get people to try all different forms of extremes in learning. “Visuality is central to our culture; it always has pride of place,” but each person has their own style of learning. Classrooms need to be small enough so that teachers can teach for all of them instead of having to send some children away to a different room. Aural and kinesthetic learning should be utilized just as heavily as visual instruction.
The final question was asked by a student at SPU’s seminary and school of business: “How has your experience been in the church and what are ways that the church can better accommodate?” Habib explains that he was raised Catholic; whenever that Gospel about the blind man comes up, he feels really self-conscious but that’s probably the only time he does, about his blindness. Catholicism is a religion that is very poly-sensory, being known for its “smells and bells.” He then gave an unexpected reply: It is commonly thought that the church is still struggling to accept people with disabilities, whether physical or cognitive, from the minute they attempt to get in the door. But Habib brought a different angle: In a desire to be radically empathetic, which is what Christ asks of us, there is a tendency to turn that into sympathy. It comes from kindness and compassion, but there needs to be that tough love, as in, “You’re just as much a person as I am, you can be a jerk just as much as I can – we’re all sinners.”
Senator Habib is an affable, resilient man who clearly likes to have fun. He is open to his constituents’ input in his work in Olympia and is clearly genuinely open to feedback and suggestions. At 34, with accolades such as receiving a Rhodes scholarship and going “from braille to Yale,” he is one of the few true champions of disability in politics. His inaugural address is fitting for the first in this promising and much-needed series, which aims to more fully integrate conversations about disability into student and work life.
Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2015