In The News

Khodr Farhat has been legally blind since he was born.

When he and his family moved to Dearborn from Lebanon in 2009, Farhat, then 16, had trouble adjusting to his new home and barely spoke any English. With the support of Farhat’s teachers and the special education program at Lincoln Park High School, he was able to learn the language, graduate high school and move on to college.

Now, at 26, the blind advocate wants to help others who may be struggling in life due to their disability.

Farhat is fighting for the return of the Disability Concerns Commission, a state-appointed group that was abolished in 2012. The commission provided resources for disabled Michigan residents, such as working with the Michigan Business Leaders Network to help secure employment and conducting disability awareness and sensitivity training for employers.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder transferred all responsibilities of the board to the Department of Civil Rights through executive order.

Farhat found out about the defunct commission last year when he was researching online about disability services offered at the state level.

“As an advocate, as someone who lives this, who breathe this, I have to raise a voice,” he said. “Now’s the time for the public to know about it (the commission) and to learn about it.”

Gaining support

Farhat reached out to state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn. Hammoud realized how beneficial the group would be for the disabled and is interested in reinstating it.

“After learning all that we’ve learned and then after speaking to individuals such as Khodr, we realized that such a commission can be vitally important for fostering growth and improving the lives of individuals throughout our state,”  he said.

Hammoud said he wants the commission to be made up of people who are disabled or people who have dealt with the disabled, such as caregivers. The majority of the responsibilities of the board would be the same as the original one. He wants to focus on providing accommodations in public spaces, such as accessible doorways and ramps and braille menus at restaurants.

Hammoud said he has spoken with other lawmakers and the response has been positive.

“This is something that can have bipartisan support with members of both the House and the Senate,” he said.

One thing that remains a mystery is why the board was abolished. When Hammoud looked into the commission, he could not find any information on why it was abolished except the executive order found on the state website. The Free Press contacted the Department of Civil Rights multiple times via phone and email to learn more information about the board but did not get a response.

Overcoming challenges

According to a 2016 Michigan Disability Status Report, the most recent data available, the percentage of disabled adults ages 21-64 in the state was at 13.1%. The most common type of disability was ambulatory at 7.9%, where people have difficulty performing activities such as walking or climbing stairs. Other common forms included independent living, cognitive and hearing disabilities. Visual disabilities, like the one Farhat has, only makes up 2.3% of the population.

Farhat doesn’t consider his disability as a setback. He’s chalked up many accomplishments since graduating high school, including becoming a motivational speaker for young people and hosting a web show, “A Spot of Hope,” that highlights Dearborn officials, business owners and community leaders.

In addition, he has made improvements for blind college students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In 2017, while studying for his undergraduate degree, Farhat partnered with the university to install new Braille signs across campus. He brought the idea to U-M Dearborn’s attention after discovering some displays were incorrect.

While the disabled are still able to receive assistance through the Department of Civil Rights, Farhat hopes to see a group exclusively dedicated to those with disabilities.

“We (the disabled community) have great people who can serve in different capacities. We know the solutions to these challenges more than anybody else,” he said.

Farhat also wants commission members to help those who are unemployed find jobs. While he is fortunate to have a job with a health insurance company in Detroit, he knows that finding work is a problem in the disabled community.  In 2016, 33.6% of disabled adults were employed and only 21.2% were working full-time.

Making progress

As of last month, Hammoud was in the drafting process of the bill and plans to introduce it to the House by the spring. If approved, Farhat said he would be happy to serve as a member of the board.

“I know what it takes to make a campus accessible,” he said. “I know what is needed to make an employer feel comfortable because I go through that myself.

“I’m more than honored and humbled to take on that mission.”