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Building Leadership and Adding Value

Advice from Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Ollie Cantos

All of the fellows and staff standing in a large group against the wall with the RespectAbility logo all over it

Ollie Cantos with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., Aug. 22 – Ollie Cantos is a blind Filipino-American who currently serves in public service under President Donald J. Trump as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

“People with disabilities: we all have things we want to do”

During a lunch with RespectAbility’s Summer Fellows, Cantos shared a compelling story about his journey toward embracing his disability as a part of his identity, admitting that he originally considered his visual impairment a “minor” obstacle that he tried to hide. In spite of his obstacles, he eventually became the highest-ranking person with a disability in the U.S. federal government and an avid advocate for the disability sector.

His work as a civil rights attorney, the General Counsel & Director of Programs for the American Association of People with Disabilities, as Special Assistant and later Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Associate Director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House under President George W. Bush, and many other roles, has contributed immensely to empowering individuals with disabilities.

In particular, Cantos revealed his methodology to how he accomplished what he did through a few significant points:

Dynamics of leadership development and collaborative efforts

Ollie Cantos speaking to RespectAbility Fellows

Ollie Cantos speaking to RespectAbility Fellows

One of the best ways to build leadership is to join in our passions and commonalities by working together to achieve our collective and common goals, Cantos shared. For example, he said that by working through bipartisan or cross-partisan efforts, we need to add commonality and value everywhere we go – to genuinely care about people… “to bring people into the tent and avoid driving away potential allies, and people we need to educate.”

Add value to other people’s lives without expecting anything in return

Having positive interactions through genuine contact is crucial, and Cantos emphasized that in this way, your names will come up in networking with a positive predisposition.

Engagement strategy

After meeting an individual, a follow-up contact period through email or phone call should be within a 72-hour period, ensuring that people remember you fresh in their memory, Cantos shared.

Leveraging social media for whatever your policy objectives may be

Cantos said that social media is a powerful tool for connecting and maintaining connections with people you meet. It can be used to send messages to take action or express gratitude, build your personal brand, disseminate information followed by a call to action, and more.

Cantos also spoke at RespectAbility’s recent From Hollywood to Capitol Hill event, where he addressed congressional and Senate staff, journalists and disability advocates about the prevailing misconceptions about people with disabilities. He emphasized that we must continue to increase awareness about eliminating stigmas about people with disabilities so that we can change and transform prevailing public attitudes.


RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact for more information.



Meet the Author

Ana Song

Ana (Hee Jae) Song is a Policy Fellow. She is a rising senior at Villanova University. After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her experience sparked a commitment for promoting education about mental health to end stigmas and inform people about psychological disorders.

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