By Michelle Hackman
Cyrus Habib is a regular politician. Even if you’re a political junkie, you’d be forgiven for not knowing his name. He’s a first-term state senator in Washington State, albeit one who’s already made his way into his party’s leadership. He’s also a declared candidate in the race for Lieutenant Governor — but for all intents and purposes that is a local office, afforded none of the national stature of the governorship.
If you have heard of Cyrus, though, chances are you know him as the whip-smart, Yale-educated, Rhodes Scholarship-winning politician who – and this was probably the subject of the story you read – is also blind. Most stories about him see his accomplishments overshadowed by vague or nonsensical headlines such as “Blind Lawmaker Reflects Biography in Policy” or, in more than one publication: “From Braille to Yale.” Never mind that he is also the first Iranian-American to hold state senatorial office – and far from the first blind person in politics. For years, Cyrus Habib has seen his name in print, always chased by the word “blind.”
I have heard of Cyrus. Maybe because I’m a political journalist who’s also blind, which means he sits right at the nexus of everything I care about. Or perhaps that’s just what the five or so people who have emailed me articles about him recently must have figured. One such confidant, whose casual musings have more than once inspired the direction of my stories, suggested off-hand that I try to write something about Cyrus.
But what about? “I’d love to write about him,” I told my friend, “but I want to stay away from the ‘blind guy becomes politician’ narrative, and I don’t know him well enough to pick out a different storyline.” I got into this field to write about the high-stakes, messy minefield that is national politics, and couldn’t bear to think that anything I might write would join the slow march of glowing triumph-over-adversity headlines parading across the screen whenever I searched for Cyrus Habib’s name.
Still, I’m guilty: I read those articles. At least six of them. While none stood out as egregious, something about the articles’ tone gnawed at me. There was an eerie quality to them, all containing the same anecdotes relayed in unnervingly similar diction. It seemed obvious that Cyrus had developed a cheery politician’s vocabulary around his disability. Rather than portray annoyance, the most un-politician-like of dispositions, he seemed eager to sell his story in patient, canned detail to journalists who questioned him about it.
Underneath it all, I thought I detected bullshit. How could a Yale Law-educated legislator enjoy molding his own public identity so explicitly around blindness? Did he not want, even if privately, to focus attention on the record-shattering money he was raising or the polls he was topping? Did he not feel somehow minimized? With a mix of curiosity and distaste, I performed one more search: for his phone number.
It’s hard to say why Cyrus’s apparent cheery embrace of his blindness bothered me so. On the one hand, blind people, especially the small subset of us interested in politics, should laud one another for our public successes, or any public display of competency that disarm the public of their preconceptions and make life a little easier on us all. I don’t deny that those sorts of successes, like being elected to public office, deserve some level of news coverage.
At the same time, I desperately want a career for myself that is successful on its own terms, neither dependent on my blindness nor in spite of it. I used to fantasize about becoming one of my generation’s great political reporters, one of those Bob Woodward or Tim Russert types, minus the cigars. Then, after reading my story in the paper, a woman would turn to her husband and say, “That Michelle Hackman, did you know she’s also blind?” It’d be an interesting little fact, but largely beside the point. As the same friend once aptly put it: “You want to be a journalist – hold the adjective.” The problem is, pretty much no one else is ready to drop the adjective.
This fantasy — of success unrelated to and not as a factor of my blindness – was first shattered in the summer of 2014, while I was working as an intern at the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. As a part of my job, I made regular trips to the U.S. Capitol. To me, the work was rock-star cool, but nonetheless distinctly intern-like. I chased the stories that were intended inserts buried in the paper. I sat in on committee hearings and press conferences, only to supply quotes to senior reporters.
I spent so much time fantasizing about scaling the journalistic ladder, of becoming the person other interns would ask for help, it never registered that someone else might think I’d already made it. Keep in mind that I’m talking about our nation’s Capital, where identity politics can often dictate business. It’s still news whenever a black man is elected to the Senate, although black men were senators dating back to Reconstruction. I can name plenty of disabled journalists who came before me, but of course most people likely can’t.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the Washington Post came calling. Their media correspondent, Paul Farhi, had heard of a young blind woman traipsing around the Capitol, trying to make her name as a reporter. To him, that was story enough. Farhi sent me a note on Facebook, but his message landed in my spam folder – I actually only found it, along with several persistent follow-ups, in the process of writing this account. Eager for a reply, he then rallied my boss, who promptly caught me typing at my desk.
I could tell that my boss, a sanguine, even-handed man, was jumping out of his skin for me to agree to the profile. The story, he suggested, would chronicle just how I “pulled off” my reporting. But it wouldn’t rely on stereotypes, he assured. Farhi had a reputation for fairness. And it would appear on the paper’s front page! “He thinks you’re pretty remarkable,” he offered as a concluding thought.
I said nothing.
How do you tell the Washington Post that they’ve got it all wrong – that a handful of blind journalists had come before you, and you’re in it for the substantive accomplishments, not the “overcoming adversity”-style fame? That maybe someday you might be remarkable, but right then, you felt like the furthest thing from it?
When I finally decided to call Cyrus Habib, I felt like I was doing the unthinkable. I was going to write just the story I had sworn to my friend I’d never author. I wanted to write a satire of the “remarkability” narrative, the one that had elevated Cyrus’s profile to begin with, using his own words. I wanted to vent that Cyrus was definitively not breaking new ground when numerous blind politicians, including one from his own state, had trodden there before. I wanted to ask him: What do we need to do to get to the point where a story like this — a blind author writing about a blind politician for the sole reason that he’s blind — doesn’t need to be written?
But when I finally got ahold of Cyrus on the phone – he’s a busy guy, turns out – he shared none of my cynicism. I brought up the empathic pangs of annoyance I’d been feeling reading his many interviews, but he connected with none of them. Cyrus allows his blindness to remain the subject of any conversation as long as needed, he said. When he goes out for campaign events, he told me, people pepper him with the most basic questions about his everyday life, like how he gets around or uses a computer. This is something with which all blind people are familiar. Sometimes, when he’s walking alone down a street, people will still seize his arm to direct him or ask whether he knows where he’s going. That question, posed to me, will invoke a range of reactions, anywhere from a faux-polite “yes, thanks so much” to a dirty look or ostentatious flourish of my phone (“Look! I’m a gainfully employed woman; please, leave me be”). I would never have the composure to react like Cyrus, who told me he’s grateful for the help, as any annoyance he might have felt is far outweighed by the real danger he sometimes faces. “I’ve been on my phone and have actually walked into traffic,” he said. Just like the rest of us.
The annoyance I was expecting him to express amounted to “umbrage-taking,” or choosing to be offended at actions others didn’t intend as offensive. “I don’t think any of it’s about a stereotype,” he said. “I think it’s about a lack of information.”
That’s an information gap that, as a public figure, he feels an obligation to fill. While running for President back in 2012, Cyrus reminded me, Mitt Romney delivered a speech laying out the basic tenets of Mormonism. President Obama, during the 2009 presidential campaign, gave a similar speech about the significance of his race. “There’s always some number of biographical stories that happen when you first enter into politics,” he said.
As Cyrus spoke, I fell into momentary reverie, going back to a scene several weeks prior, when I had first read about him. I was playing Uno with my cousin’s three boys, all under the age of ten. They loved playing with my set in particular, with braille letters and numbers clustered at the top left corner of each card. They’d all read about Helen Keller in school, but none had seen braille before.
I was already on edge playing Uno with three infamous cheaters. In the middle of the game, one of them grabbed my hand and started picking each card out, one by one. “What does this one say,” he asked me, handing me a yellow six. I told him. He pulled out a second and demanded I identify it. Then I snapped. “I don’t like it when you test me like that,” I scolded. My own tone surprised me. But I likely would have forgotten the event entirely if the boy’s mother, my cousin, hadn’t overheard. “They just don’t understand it, Michelle,” she said. “They want to learn from you.”
My mind then drifted back to the Post reporter. I’d turned him away in the righteous hope that my steadfast refusal to be identified as a blind journalist would somehow win me some measure of respect. I’d rejected immediate prominence for a slow climb toward recognition. I still shudder to think that someone else’s story written about me would eclipse anything I myself might write. But in the year and a half since, every time a new friend or colleague wants to know how I type or whether I commute alone, I wonder: Would it not have been better for them to read about me in the newspaper? For them to learn exactly how a blind woman uses her computer and goes out to report and, at the end of the day, does the same job they do? That way, when we meet, those curiosities wouldn’t have to hang over our conversations.
I snapped back to reality, to Cyrus’s calm voice on the other end of the line. “That goes away once you start to do substantive things in office,” he was saying. “Then they want to talk about, ‘Why’d you raise my taxes?’”
I don’t believe Cyrus’s willingness to explain his blindness is totally altruistic; quite the contrary. One of the first ads he aired back in 2012, during a race for a State House seat, opens with the line “I lost my eyesight to cancer at the age of eight, and that taught me the importance of hard work and creative solutions.” The line, while true, allows him to instantly parlay his disability into a list of clear policy priorities. Some of that same self-promotional drive is what’s at work in the many interviews I read. Cyrus appears to have taken the gamble that, in talking about his blindness, he would educate people while also raising his profile beyond the scope of the average state-level politician. In his case, the gamble paid off.
Near the end of our interview, I asked him about this point, a hint of annoyance doubtless audible in my voice. I recounted the story of the persistent Washington Post reporter, the one who had found me “remarkable.” Farhi ultimately never ended up publishing the story. And that was for the best, I told Cyrus: “I’ll let someone write about me once I’ve accomplished something.”
But I needed to know, would he have done the story? “One hundred percent yes,” he said. “What part of the story is not going to say that I was a Rhodes Scholar or a state senator, or that I went to Yale law school? There is no blind Rhodes scholar stereotype. By writing the story, they’ve recognized that you’re enough of an anomaly.”
And though I disagreed with Cyrus – and still do – his words rang with such self-love that I was momentarily taken aback. Sure, maybe he was using blindness as a competitive advantage. But there was an emotional nakedness, a radical self-acceptance, too, that I envied. It requires a sort of comfort in your own skin to allow people to stare at you, to be fascinated by your blindness, to indulge in their curiosity, without making you feel self-conscious.
I clearly hadn’t reached that point when I first came to Washington, and I haven’t come as far as Cyrus in his first campaign for office. But by living through Cyrus’s words – by transcribing them on this page alongside my own, for all of you to read – I can only hope I’m on my way.