Washington, D.C., September 7 – Before delivering the keynote address at RespectAbility’s Capitol Hill Summit, Ollie Cantos was racing through the halls of the Rayburn Building after being stuck in the notoriously long security lines, hoping to arrive at the Summit on time.
When he entered the room and began speaking, he immediately captivated the audience. Cantos, who is the Special Assistant to the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and Member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (PCPID), highlighted the changes that have taken place in the disability community and the challenges still ahead, noting tensions within the disability community such as new and old ways of thinking amid polarizing political times. Some people with disabilities still are being housed in institutions, while some are out fighting for them to be let out. He emphasized that active members of the disability community are obligated to come together and speak up for themselves. Cantos described the process as “an ongoing journey of transformation and change.”
Among the changes are an update to what many know as a slogan in the disability world: “nothing about us without us.” Cantos explained how the National Federation of the Blind recently revamped the phrase to “nothing without us.” The new wording highlights how people with and without disabilities should be coming together in everyday life, fully integrated.
More changes need to come in the form of holding others accountable, Cantos explained. He stressed the importance of calling others to action, and how that imperative will invoke change. Everyone has the ability to influence others, he added, whether by sharing views via social media or offering constructive criticism in person. Calling for change simply boils down to looking at those around us and asking what their needs are and how to help, he said. What’s needed in the disability community is for everyone “to build up one another.” If this is possible, a ripple effect of change can begin to change what is long overdue.
Cantos then drew a representation of this call to action with a diagram of circles and lines to indicate, respectively, the conference attendees and their relationships. The diagram came down to the idea that change begins with an individual. “When it comes to who we are, and when it comes to what we each have to offer, we need to keep building these alliances,” he said.
Cantos was accompanied by one of his sons, Nick, with whom he clearly shares a strong bond. Cantos began to tear up on stage when asked about Nick and his two brothers. Cantos, who is blind himself, adopted the triplets, who also are blind, after someone in his faith community told him about them. Cantos says that after meeting them he “just knew” that they were his kids. He says one of the reasons he is working so hard in the disability community and with RespectAbility is for them and their futures.
Cantos concluded with the message that “there is fundamental respect-ability in being a person with a disability.”