Cyrus Habib presides over Washington state’s Senate in his capacity as lieutenant governor — a task that would have been much more difficult if he had been elected a decade ago. That’s because he lost his sight to cancer as a child.
Habib says innovative technology allowed him to juggle simultaneous jobs as an attorney, professor, and state legislator while campaigning for Washington’s second-highest elected office.
When he won the seat, the state Senate chambers got a high-tech makeover to help Habib in his duties as president. Now each senator has a touchscreen that connects with a Braille device to notify the lieutenant governor when he or she wants to speak.
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Habib sat down with GeekWire after his keynote at the launch event for a new cross-border innovation accelerator in Seattle last week to talk about how technology has shaped his life. He said that of all the tech giants, Apple has “had the most institutional commitment to accessibility by design” because solutions for people with special needs are built-in to the operating system, without relying on third-party apps.
The iPhone has settings that can be enabled to increase accessibility. For example, a blind iPhone user can touch the screen and hear what’s happening using the VoiceOver feature.
“I would say people with disabilities are uniquely advantaged by smartphone technology,” Habib said. “For example, Uber is great for everybody — and OneBusAway — but they’re particularly good for people who cannot drive.”
Habib grew up in Microsoft’s backyard, Bellevue, where he and his classmates had early access to new technology. At that time, a screen reader called JAWS for Windows was the most cutting-edge technology for the blind. Habib used it in school. When touchscreen technology became more mainstream, it opened up more possibilities.
After graduating high school, Habib got a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a Master’s from the University of Oxford. He went on to earn a law degree from Yale. Habib served in the Washington state legislature from 2012 to 2016. From the early days of screen readers to the smartphone revolution, he has watched technology evolve to better address the needs of people with disabilities.
“So obviously it’s exciting when the newest user interface is one that seems like it was actually developed with blind people in mind first and foremost,” he said, referring to the rise of voice-controlled smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. “A cylinder with no screen that just talks to you and you talk to.”
Voice-activated devices provide a simple way for people with visual impairment to access technology and they’re still in early days. As more companies enter the smart speaker market, it could lead to new tools for people without site — though it’s worth mentioning that these devices fall short for people with voice impairments.
Still, Habib says disruptive accessibility solutions are coming out at a faster rate than when he was growing up. That’s why he’s bullish about technology’s power to help people with disabilities participate more actively in everyday life.
“Not only is there no challenge that technology can’t solve but more specifically, there’s no divide, there’s no digital divide that technology can’t respond to with a digital connection,” Habib said.