American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2017 PERSPECTIVES
by Olegario Cantos, VII
From the Editor: Olegario (Ollie) Cantos served as associate director for domestic policy for the White House under President George W. Bush. He served as special counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights, and currently he is the special assistant to the assistant secretary for civil rights at the US Department of Education. He has been president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS), and he won an NFB National Scholarship in 1991. You can learn more about Ollie Cantos and his career at <http://www.ollieCantos.com>.
For each of us, whether blind or sighted, it is important to challenge existing paradigms with the knowledge that there is always more to learn. Parents, children, and educators all have things to teach one another. Sometimes this teaching occurs in unexpected ways.
In May of 2010 I was working as an attorney with the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice. Oswaldo Castillo, a friend from church, worked for a local social services agency. Through a colleague, he learned about three sixth-grade boys, triplets, named Leo, Nick, and Esteban (Steven). Born in Colombia, the boys came to the United States when they were three years old. Among their many characteristics, the boys were totally blind due to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Oswaldo wanted to introduce the boys to me because he thought I could be of support to them. I had years of mentoring experience, including work with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program when I lived in California. I agreed to help out in whatever way I could.
The boys were frequently the targets of bullying and playground taunts. I had been bullied too as a child, and I wanted to show the boys how they could best tackle this problem. Furthermore, I learned that for the past seven years the boys had hardly ever been outside their home except to go to school, attend church, participate in Braille Book Club once a month, and take part in a week-long summer camp. They were each other's best buddies, but they had few friends. Even when they weren't being bullied, they felt out of place. Kids would ask them what it was like not to be able to see, but once their curiosity was satisfied, their peers hardly spoke to them again.
Though the boys were around their peers all day at school, they mostly felt alone. With only one another for company, they retreated into the worlds that only books could provide. Reading was their sanctuary. It helped take their minds off their biological father, who left the family when the triplets were five, never to be seen again.
Each of the boys had a distinct personality. Leo was highly gregarious. He was known for his great big smile, and teachers and administrators saw him as the eternal optimist. Nick, by contrast, had an "edge" to him. Trusting hardly anyone, he attributed the negative circumstances of his life to his blindness. In fact, as he approached the age of eleven, he felt as though his life had no value. Esteban was serious and introspective. A deep thinker, he was the most avid reader among the three. He would read anything and everything he could get his hands on, and the most peer-to-peer interaction he had was with his brothers. Against this backdrop, our journey began.
Longtime readers of Future Reflections are familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), a division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The overarching assertion of the NFB is that it is respectable to be blind and that, when blind people are provided with appropriate training and opportunity to succeed, they can compete on terms of equality with those who can see. However, for those who are not well-versed in this philosophy, it can be daunting to imagine that blind children can strive for the same achievements as those envisioned for sighted children.
Such was the case with the boys' mother, Ceila. She did not know any other blind people, and she could not picture her sons ever functioning with full independence. In fact, academic and most other achievements were outside her direct experience, and her expectations were low, whether a person were blind or not. The same held true for Ceila's mother, Margenia, who followed Ceila to America to help her care for the boys.
Consequently, when Ceila and Margenia were offered the opportunity to meet Oswaldo, who would introduce them to someone who could help mentor the triplets along, they jumped at the chance. Little could anyone have predicted the impact of that decision on the lives of all those involved.
Like the boys I am blind as the result of ROP. I was first licensed to practice law in June of 1999, having been sworn in just weeks before the boys came into the world down in South America. No one could have had any idea how our life paths would later converge. One of the chief factors contributing to my career success was my discovery of the Federation in 1989 as a college sophomore. I joined the organization in May 1990. My association with the organized blind movement had a profound impact on the way my parents came to view blindness. You can read about this transformation in our lives in the Braille Monitor (<https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm91/brlm9103.htm#13>) and in Future Reflections (<https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr11/Issue1/f110104.html>).
In spite of whatever personal and professional milestones I had reached, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. What began as a mentoring relationship quickly grew into something far more powerful. I spent much of my spare time with the boys, taking them places and showing them how to travel more independently with their canes. I facilitated them in making age-appropriate decisions such as selecting and ordering their own food at restaurants and picking out items at convenience stores, where they learned to speak to the cashiers directly. I did homework with them. Eventually I accompanied them to IEP (individualized education program) meetings and strove to ensure that they themselves led discussions about their futures. Our efforts were further advanced through the outstanding philosophy of teachers and administrators at the boys' school. The school was committed to dedicate whatever resources were necessary to acquire appropriate assistive technology. Teachers encouraged strong personal accountability. With a decreasing number of prompts the boys became accustomed to initiating and carrying out responsibilities typical of kids their age. I helped establish and maintain solid lines of communication between the boys and their respective IEP team members. All the while, I worked to maintain a close partnership with Ceila and Margenia.
One day, when I took Leo to the store, something happened that I will never forget. The co-owner asked me if Leo was my son. Before I could explain that he was one of the kids I was mentoring, Leo put his arm around my shoulders and said, "Yeah, that's my dad."
His answer caught me off guard, and a whole range of emotions swept over me all at once. I had always wanted to be a father, and these boys no longer had one. By the same token, I knew nothing about how this parenthood thing worked, though I had my own parents, Orlando and Linda Cantos, as amazing examples. How should I answer Leo? What should I say, and how should I say it?
Outside the store, I bent down to his level and placed both my hands on his shoulders. Facing him, I asked, "Leo, with what you said, do you know what that means?"
"Well," he said, "you take us places, protect us, do homework with us . . ." He shrugged his shoulders and said matter-of-factly, "Sounds like a dad to me."
From that moment on, I knew that life would never ever be the same for any of us. Eventually I adopted the boys as my own. Every time they call me Dad, it still fills my heart with pride and with deep gratitude for having my sons in my life. They are now known to the world as Leo, Nick, and Steven Cantos.
Through the years since I took on the role of dad, the biggest challenges have stemmed from a philosophical clash between Ceila and me. I have often felt that Ceila does not quite recognize the boys' true potential, while I continually want to empower them to do, have, and be more than they ever thought possible. But as she has watched each of the boys thrive and grow, she has seen the benefit of assuming inherent ability rather than its opposite.
My biggest ally in convincing Ceila to dream bigger turned out to be Margenia. We all lost her suddenly in August 2014. Her legacy lives on through the boys doing more than anyone from their old lives could ever have imagined. Meanwhile, as Ceila's role as mother changes when the boys reach the age of majority, my sons and I wish her the very best as she raises yet another child.
Our adoption story was first shared with a nationwide listening audience of more than thirteen million people when it played during the National Public Radio's StoryCorps segment in February 2014. You can hear our interview at (<http://www.npr.org/2014/02/21/280277459/the-lives-of-blind-brothers-changed-when-dad-came-knocking>). An expanded version appeared in People Magazine in May 2016, reaching a readership of more than forty million (see <http://www.people.com/people/mobile/article/0,,21003008,00.html>) and featuring video coverage as well (see <http://www.people.com/people/videos/0,,21002657,00.html>). For an eight-page spread in the Washingtonian Magazine, see <https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/09/07/meet-amazing-blind-man-raising-blind-triplets-2>. We welcome these opportunities to show the public how high expectations can change lives.
My sons are now high school seniors. All three boys have been involved in a myriad of extracurricular activities at school and in the community. Leo is actively studying Japanese and aims to become a computer programmer. He has been a leader at the district level for Boy Scouts of America. He spent time with leaders at Microsoft, where he ultimately hopes to land, and he completed a paid internship with a South Korean technology company this past summer. Currently he is working four days a week as an intern in an executive office environment at National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and getting far above minimum wage. He played the French horn in his high school marching band and symphonic band.
Nick has participated in integrated sports (crew and wrestling) alongside fellow students without disabilities. He played the trumpet as part of concert band, and he successfully completed a paid internship for a South Korean company different from Leo's. He now runs his own independent Amway retail distributorship as an entrepreneur and online marketer. He also works as a paid intern at NIB.
Steven mentors underprivileged elementary school students as part of Aspire Afterschool. He was surprised to be named the organization's Star Volunteer of the Year for 2016 at a local event held at an exclusive country club. He was elected student body secretary at a school of almost two thousand students. He has played the baritone saxophone for nine years and achieved a 4.0 GPA. He is the first totally blind drum major in the nation to lead a large high school marching band primarily made up of students without disabilities. Steven hopes to become a lawyer specializing in copyright law.
All three boys love audio and video games and work on cardio exercises in a gym outside of school. They are independent cane travelers who use buses and Metro trains to go from place to place. They have gained important skills of cooking and baking, and they do their own laundry and undertake other household chores. Lifelong Braille readers, they are active proponents of Braille literacy. They have raised money for charity, have volunteered at a food bank, and have collected canned goods for low-income families. All three have served in leadership positions in Boy Scouts and church. They are poised to achieve the prestigious and coveted rank of Eagle Scout by late June of 2017, a feat only attained by 4 percent of all Scouts.
Most importantly, all three boys have adopted the unshakeable stance that it is respectable to be blind. They understand that the only real limits to stellar accomplishment are those we place on ourselves. Next stop for each: college!
Some people may think that these results are not typical, that they may not necessarily be attainable by the vast majority of kids who are blind. I respectfully caution such folks to challenge their own sometimes unconscious assumptions of what is within reach and what is not for blind kids. Upon learning our family story, be very wary if you say to yourself, "Well, they are the exception and not the rule." My response: "Then, change the rule." Why not your child or student? What is to be gained by holding lower expectations? Nothing in comparison to what could occur by embodying high expectations.
Even as progressive as we each think we are, we must constantly reassess ourselves. We must rededicate ourselves continually to improvement. On a spontaneous trip to New York in early October 2016, we were at breakfast one morning. Suddenly I heard a piece of silverware drop to the floor. "Boys," I said, "whichever one of you dropped that, can you pick it up please?"
The next thing I knew, a stranger, seated at the table next to ours said, "Sir, that wasn't one of your sons. I was the one who dropped it."
I immediately apologized to the boys for my incorrect assumption. As forward thinking as I believe myself to be, especially after having lived as a Federationist for more than twenty-six years, I am not immune to the quiet remnants of limited belief. It still lurks and waits to rise up unless I consciously take care to keep it at bay.
The more we adopt an attitude that stands against viewing blindness as an insurmountable obstacle, the better positioned we will be to enable blind students and their network of family and friends to make the very most of their lives, as every human being should. Let us each champion adoption in more ways than one. In so doing, we will make a lasting difference in unique and groundbreaking ways, forever expanding what it means to be blind.