Washingtons First Blind Lieutenant GovernorTop Stories

January 09, 2017 11:47
Washingtons First Blind Lieutenant Governor

As Washington state prepares for its first blind lieutenant governor to take oath, the Senate has undergone a change that incorporates Braille into that chamber's floor session.

On a recent day just weeks before the start of the legislative session which begins on Monday, the desks of all the 49 senators got innovated: a system has been installed that will allow Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib to know by the touch of his finger which lawmaker is seeking to be recognized to speak.

"I am really very excited to show the people, particularly the school children, that nothing is impossible," Habib said  on Thursday, just hours after testing the system out.

Habib, is a 35-year-old attorney, he completely lost his eyesight at the age of 8 due to cancer, in 2012 he was first elected to the state house and in 2014 he won a state Senate seat. In November 2016 Habib beat Republican Marty McClendon to replace Lieutenant Governor. Brad Owen, a Democrat who is going to retire after holding the post since 1997. Habib will take his oath as Lieutenant Governor on Wednesday.

The Lt.Governor is the second highest position in the state, the Position is best known as the president of the Senate and presides over that chamber during the legislative sessions, ensuring that all protocols are being followed and weighing in on parliamentary questions that arise during the debate.

The lieutenant governor of all the states are charged with controlling the Senate debate in their states, Habib will make the call on who to recognize first when a parliamentary motion is made, or a request to speak on a bill.

Usually a lawmaker stands up on their seat and addresses the presiding officer. Even though Habib, as a former member of the Senate, may recognize the voices, when a bunch of lawmakers stand up — as they occasionally do — it would be impossible for Habib to know who was first to stand up without a staffer telling him.

Now, new touch screen panels will be installed on the desks of lawmakers, they have to push the buttons in touchscreen as they stand. In order of those lawmakers, who have pushed the button, a list will be transmitted to the rostrum, where the Braille display in front of Habib will go from flat to a series of raised dots that spell out the lawmaker's name.

"The key thing here is to be able to do it quickly," Habib said. "You want to keep the debate moving."

When Cyrus Habib joined the House in 2012, he was provided with a Braille reader and a software on his laptop that provided him both Braille and text-to-speech translation for the multitude of bills, emails and news stories which he reads daily. And while the audio software is his preferred system, and the added multitasking of calling on lawmakers made the Braille reader for the rostrum essential. In addition to that, the Senate purchased a Braille printer so that Cyrus Habib can read in advance things like who is leading the chamber's prayer, or who is bringing the flags to the rostrum.

Deputy Secretary of the Senate, Paul Campos said that while the Braille upgrade is unprecedented, it is in line with ensuring the chamber runs as smoothly as possible.

"Our job is to make sure the work gets done," he said. "This is simply another piece of that."

Campos said that the touchscreens cost around $57,000 and the Braille reader, printer and software costs around $12,000.

Cyrus Habib, who already gives Braille business cards to people, said that the new technology in the Senate is just another way to show people who visit the state Capitol the various ways technology has evolved and is used in state government.

"This is what innovation does," he said. "This is how innovations can solve problems."

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