Making a Difference

Mr. Olegario “Ollie” D. Cantos VII recently visited the Twin Cities and spoke passionately about disability awareness and mentoring for various audiences. An incredibly inspirational individual, Ollie shared insight regarding how to make a difference in the world. Before divulging his wisdom, it is important to peek into his life’s journey so far.

Ollie was born in Los Angeles to Filipino immigrants. He was born two months prematurely and was diagnosed as having retrolental fibroplasia: he had no vision in his left eye and only partial vision in his right. In early childhood, his attitudes were shaped by an emphasis on using the vision he had. Ollie remembers playing with fully-sighted children who were allowed to run around and play. Although he sometimes participated, more often he was discouraged from engaging in any “vigorous activities”. He was told, “You can’t see too well, and there are just some things that you can’t do.” He began to feel that he was inferior to those with full vision, that having sight meant having ability, and that his lack of sight meant that he was not as capable as those with sight. Further, the greater a person’s physical limitations, the less capable he or she will be. Ollie felt lucky to be “less disabled” – he didn’t want to be referred to as blind or disabled – in other words, incapable.

Ollie learned to read and write with his non-visually impaired classmates. However, as time went on, his peers began to read and write more quickly and easily. By fourth grade, he began to use magnifying glasses, closed-circuit televisions and other adaptive equipment. He resisted using Braille as that might imply disability. He also refused to use a cane despite his occasional bumping into obstacles, tripping over curbs, and falling down steps. He struggled with acceptance just like the rest of us experiencing some sort of “disability”; he wanted to “blend in” and “be normal.”

Eventually his thinking changed. He realized no one is truly hindered by a “disability”; people are hindered by their focus and attitude. If someone focuses on limitations, abilities will be neglected. For example, when Ollie was in late-elementary school, he was being bullied during recess. One day, he mustered up the courage to approach the bully, explained how he was feeling as a result of being bullied, and indicated that he wanted to be friends. The bully was thrown off guard by his courage, and Ollie earned his respect and friendship. His knack for helping people see things from a different perspective and the ability to build friendships served him well; later he was elected to the student government. When Ollie was 14, he decided he wanted to become a politician and lawyer.

Ollie finished high school, learned Braille, began using a cane, graduated college, and finished law school. He struggled during law school and, at one point, even wrote a resignation letter to the school’s dean. Ollie’s story wasn’t one of overcoming an obstacle and living happily ever after. Like everyone else, he encounters challenges, often struggles, becomes frustrated, and occasionally experiences despair. But, he focuses on using his strengths, remains committed to his goals, and he plows ahead. When asked about the other things that help him through the “tough times,” he stressed his immensely supportive and encouraging family, vast expanse of friends, faith in God, and passion to make a difference in the world.

Ollie is humble in discussing his accomplishments. He is widely known for his ability to get to know people and bring people together to work toward common goals. He has been referred to as “a rising star in the nation’s disability community.” He has served in leadership positions not typically held by people his age, let alone by those experiencing disability. The first and only person ever to serve as General Counsel and Director of Programs for the American Association of People with Disabilities, whose membership now exceeds 90,000, he spearheaded Disability Mentoring Day. Under his leadership, the program now encompasses efforts in all 50 states, three territories, and 18 foreign countries on 5 continents. And recently, Ollie joined the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division as Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General. In his new role, he continues to raise public awareness of disability issues through fostering closer working relationships with disability rights organizations, the private sector, ethnic minority organizations, and government officials at all levels.

Since high school, he has been actively involved in numerous community groups for which he has been recognized on several occasions. He points out that each of us is a member of several communities, not just the disability community, and that we have responsibilities to them too. Plus, involvement outside the disability community helps introduce disability to the general public, who may not otherwise have an opportunity to interact with someone experiencing a disability. Leading by example, he was recently named 2004 Big Brother of the Year for his involvement in the California Collaborative of Big Brothers Big Sisters. In addition to being an active volunteer, spokesman, and lawyer, he is also an accomplished writer. In his free time, he enjoys horseback riding, rollerblading, church involvement, science fiction, and running (he is a three-time finisher of the Los Angeles Marathon).

Imagine what the world would be like if we all chose Ollie’s attitude and dedication. One of his most closely-held philosophies is “pay it forward” (remember the movie?). Basically, the philosophy is unselfishly helping a person and asking that they “pay it forward” by helping three other people. This means that, if you help three people this month, and those three people each help three people next month, those nine people each help three people the following month (a total of 27 people), and so on. The number of people helped each month would blossom exponentially. After a year, a half-million lives would be touched by a network started by just one person! Think about it…

Thanks Ollie!

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