March 01, 2008

March 2008: Olegario “Ollie” D. Cantos, VII, Esq.

Justice Department official who is blind promotes collaboration between the disability rights community and the federal government.

Most in the disability rights movement agree that change for the better simply does not occur on its own. Typically, progress in the disability rights movement takes planning and action from various sectors, groups, and individuals. According to government attorney Olegario “Ollie” D. Cantos VII, it is best if a certain progression takes place as the direct result of efforts by the government in close partnership with private organizations and individuals.

Ollie Cantos has been blind since birth. After attending Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, he was a staff attorney for a disability rights public interest organization in California. He then moved to Washington, DC in 2002 to become general counsel and director of programs for the American Association of People with Disabilities. Still focusing on disability law and advocacy for those with disabilities, Ollie began his political career in 2004 when he was appointed Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Within two years, he was called to worked in the White House as the Associate Director for Domestic Policy, where he led in implementing President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Initiative for Americans with disabilities. He has since returned to the Justice Department and presently serves as Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. He has also served as a member of the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law.

Within a disability context, Cantos’s ultimate goal is to implement lasting societal change. In order to accomplish this goal, he stresses the importance of the interaction between the government and relevant organizations and individuals. The government, when working in collaboration with community stakeholders from all sectors, may help set the stage by serving as a catalyst for addressing problems that affect or even hinder individuals with disabilities. By bringing attention to a problem and taking solution-oriented approaches that involve all branches of government, the important process of ameliorating societal ills may continue.

Yet, even though the government’s role is critical, government action must be but a part of the overall strategy for fostering equality of opportunity and access, according to Cantos. “The rest must come from a dedicated cadre of individuals and leaders from communities of every size to exercise creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit. When combined with the kind of philosophy that promotes the inherent respectability of every human being of every age, we may individually and collectively build upon the groundbreaking work of those who have come before us.” Cantos then emphasized, “Through efforts from the grasstops, combined with those of the grassroots, amazing things may and do happen to combat discrimination, destroy old and outdated stereotypes about disability, and create an even brighter future of which we may all be proud. Changing the world starts with just one person, ourselves.”

All of this is a far cry from the way things used to be. When starting with himself, Ollie did not initially respect his disability. “For almost the first twenty years of my life, I did everything I could to hide my disability. I even thought the word ‘blind’ to be associated with incompetence and helplessness,” he recalled. “But, once I realized that the problems associated with disability are not the disability itself but what people thought of it, everything changed. Suddenly, when I realized that I had nothing to be ashamed of because blindness was just a part of me, and did not define the whole of my existence, I was able to see how each of us must set our expectations extremely high and then must endeavor diligently to exceeding them, whether we have a disability or not.”