Image of Ollie with his three sonsCelebrate Father's Day by meeting Ollie Cantos and learning about his relationship with his 3 sons who, like Ollie, are blind. Ollie shares his experience with his own parents growing up and offers his advice for parents of kids with disabilities.

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From Mentor to Parent: A Father's Story

Jun 18, 2018

A Happy Father's Day cardThe Ticket to Work (Ticket) team recently had an opportunity to interview Ollie Cantos in honor of Father's Day. Ollie is a lawyer who serves as the Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and was recently appointed to serve on the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

While his professional schedule is full, Ollie, who is blind, also loves his other job: being a father to his 3 adopted sons, Nick, Leo and Steven. The 3 young men, who are currently preparing for their first college semesters this fall, are blind too.

Ollie met the triplet brothers when they were 10 years old. They were introduced through Ollie's friend from church who thought Ollie's experience as a mentor would help the boys, who struggled with bullying.

"When I was first asked to support them as a mentor, I just figured this would be another set of kids that I would help along, the same way I was helped along by my own parents, so I could continue to pay it forward," Ollie says. "But when I first began to get to know them, there was almost immediately something that was different — I just felt a real connection to them that was different from the mentee relationship. I felt like I was closer to them than just a mentor, and they felt the same way about me."

Ollie recounts that the boys had been living a very limited life — only leaving their home for school and church. They rarely went outside and were uncertain of their abilities, but Ollie helped them change that. Their adventures started with trips to the convenience store just down the road from their home and kept growing.

It wasn't long before Ollie received a great honor. He was at the corner store with Leo when the woman behind the counter asked Ollie if Leo was his son. Before Ollie could respond, Leo put his arm around Ollie and told her, "Yeah, that's my dad."

Ollie remembers, "I was just floored. I was speechless. I was teary eyed because I had felt really close to him already." So Ollie knelt to be at Leo's level, put his hands on the young boy's shoulders and asked, "'Leo, do you know what that means?' and he said, 'Well, you take us places. You protect us, you do homework with us.' Then I felt him shrug his shoulders and he said, 'Sounds like a dad to me.'"

Image of Ollie with his three sonsFatherly advice

Ollie grew up a victim of bullying himself, and as a result, he felt uncertain and lacked confidence. "But my mom and dad would never relent," he explains. "They would always tell me, 'You have to do well in school, and you should be well rounded. You should try all sorts of things.'"

It was tough for Ollie at first, but he explains, "My mom and my dad 'loved it' into me. They loved me into expecting more for and of myself. Every time I made a mistake, my mom's response was, 'Well, you need to learn from that and work harder.'"

Years later, Ollie is using that same parenting technique and mindset with his sons.

He encourages parents of kids with disabilities to believe in their children and push them to achieve more, regardless of disability. "Don't discount the disability," Ollie advises. "But we embrace that our disabilities don't define us; they're merely characteristics. But because they're mere characteristics, we need to consider what our expectations are and whether those expectations change because of the disability."

He also points out that parenting has a different level of responsibility than mentoring. As a mentor, Ollie always wants the best for his mentees, but notes that his role is to give strong suggestions and to provide support when they take action on those suggestions.

As a dad, Ollie was ready to take on more authority. "I was better positioned to say, 'This is the way that things need to go, and we need to push forward, and I will hold you personally responsible," Ollie says.

That mindset came into play when Leo, Nick and Steven set goals of becoming Eagle Scouts, the Boy Scouts of America's (BSA) highest rank. While the BSA does offer alternative requirements and accommodations for scouts with disabilities, Ollie helped them plan ahead to submit and complete their projects without accommodations: "It took more time, but we planned and made it work."

Ollie says he's excited to see his sons continue to succeed. "I've worked to instill in them since they were 10 years old the need to work ... and all 3 of them have been successful. And that's why their strong work ethic and excitement of collecting a paycheck has been a lot of fun."

The joys of parenting

When asked, what's your favorite part of being a dad, Ollie says, "Oh my gosh, everything. We laugh all the time. We hang out, we explore, we get lost. We just do everything together as a family, and it's just so much fun."

One of his favorite activities is having one of the boys plan an entire day out for the family. Each one takes turns planning an adventure, including mapping out how they're going to arrive at the location, the budget for the day, and all the activities. While these adventures allowed them to bond and have fun, it's also helped them learn about planning, leadership, and learning from mishaps that may come up — all skills that Ollie thinks will help them as they pursue their career goals.

Having completed a training program for people who are blind in Boston, MA, each of the brothers has found a paid internship to gain work experience as they prepare to start college this fall. It's clear that they've learned a lot from their dad, and they'll continue to use this knowledge as they set educational and professional goals for themselves.

About Ticket to Work

Social Security's Ticket to Work program supports career development for people ages 18 through 64 who receive Social Security disability benefits (SSI or SSDI) and want to work. The Ticket program is free and voluntary. It helps people with disabilities move toward financial independence and connects them with the services and support they need to succeed in the workforce.

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