By AUDREY FISCHER
Sixteen years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, White House Domestic Policy director Olegario D. Cantos—the highest-ranking person with a disability in the federal government—delivered the keynote address for the Library's 2006 celebration of Disability Employment Awareness Month.
"Employment of persons with disabilities is a top priority for this administration," said Cantos, citing the president's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, which will soon launch an anti-stigma campaign.
"Some disabilities are visible while others, like diabetes or psychiatric disorders, are invisible," said Cantos. He cited the recent shooting in an Amish school as a reason people still harbor fears about the mentally disabled. According to Cantos, "99.99 percent" of persons with psychiatric disabilities are not a danger to others.
"I challenge you to be honest about your fears about hiring the disabled," he said. "I also challenge you to think carefully about employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Each of us has a knowledge and skill set. Skills, qualifications, talents and abilities are just as diverse inside the disabled community as they are outside that community."
By his own admission, Cantos was not always positive about the capabilities of the disabled, including his own. Blind as a result of being born prematurely, he was treated poorly by his peers. As a result, he said, "my self-esteem was a little below zero."
"They would wave their hands in front of my face and say, "Ha, you can't see anything," he recalled. "They said I couldn't do anything. I was the last to be picked for any group activities. I eventually came out of my shell because of my teachers, mentors and disabled rights leaders."
Cantos not only survived his difficult childhood, but thrived in spite of it. He earned a law degree from Loyola Law School, served as director for several major disability rights organizations and as an assistant to the current and former U.S. Attorneys General. In April he was appointed to his current position as associate director for Domestic Policy at the White House. A sports enthusiast, Cantos has also demonstrated his athletic prowess as a three-time finisher of the 26.2-mile Los Angeles Marathon.
"Think back 10 years ago to the people who mentored you and inspired you, and strive to emulate their personal and professional traits," said Cantos.
He praised the Library for its services to the public, in particular the services offered by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. "I have been a patron [of NLS] for more than 25 years, and I am grateful to those who continue to build that program, using new formats and new technologies."
To the Library's staff he said, "You are the information gatekeepers for so many Americans. The Library makes information available to the widest audience possible. That is a fact that is noticed by this administration, which is why we accepted this invitation. But I'm not just here to give a speech and leave. I want to start new partnerships."
Toward that end, Cantos gave his contact information to the audience. He provided Internet resources and listed a number of things the Library's staff can do on behalf of people with disabilities. These suggestions include actively identifying jobs for people with disabilities and learning about the ADA (www.ada.gov) and about nonprofit and federal institutions that serve the disabled (www.guidestar.org, www.aapd-dc.org, www.opm.gov/disability/).
"Diversify your workforce, and offer internships to the disabled," he suggested. "Give people opportunities to succeed. A disability is nothing more than a mere characteristic. It's part of someone, but it does not define them."