Environmental Factor, February 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Distinguished Guest Gives Disability Presentation
By Eddy Ball
On January 13, the NIEHS Diversity Council Disability Advocacy Committee (DAC) welcomed as its keynote speaker one of the highest ranking officials with a disability in the federal government today, Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice (DOJ) Ollie Cantos, J.D. Cantos, who is blind because of medical complications at birth, addressed NIEHS employees with a presentation titled "Employment of People with Disabilities: A Practical Approach."
DAC members were joined at the event by NIEHS Associate Director for Management Marc Hollander, who introduced the speaker, and Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., who presented closing remarks. DAC Co-chair J. J. Bell-Nichols welcomed the audience, DAC member Jennie Foushee provided piano accompaniment, and DAC Chair Alicia Moore presented Cantos with tokens of appreciation following the talk.
Cantos, who would spend the final part of his talk discussing ways to build good will and networks, opened his engaging presentation by complimenting his audience on the "incredible work that NIEHS continues to do" - both in terms of its scientific excellence and its commendable track record in hiring and accommodating qualified workers who have disabilities.
During his presentation, Cantos carefully built up support for his closing challenge to NIEHS to "become a beacon for other agencies" to follow as they reach out to the community of people with disabilities. He asked everyone in the audience to "think about how you can be an instrument of change for the better."
"Each of us," Cantos argued, "must look at the way people with disabilities can contribute meaningfully to the workplace just like anyone else." Dismissing the notion that people with disabilities are limited to performing what he called "disability work," Cantos asserted, "People with disabilities can do everything from cleaning the office to running it."
Integrating the talents of people with disabilities into NIEHS and other agencies, he said, makes "good business sense" and can help impact the alarming 38 percent unemployment rate of people with disabilities. Cantos was prepared with the web addresses of a number of organizations capable of helping employers learn how to recruit, employ and accommodate individuals with disabilities.
Cantos made a point of addressing issues related to "those with disabilities that are not readily apparent." Some of these disabilities, such as autism, he said, can actually help a worker perform critical, detail-oriented tasks much more accurately. Cantos also dismissed concerns about the potential of violent behavior by workers with psychiatric disabilities, observing that "99.99 percent" of persons with psychiatric disabilities are not a danger to others in the workplace.
Cantos' theme throughout his talk centered on "the things we have in common with one another, regardless of whether we have a disability - namely [that] there are challenges in our lives, we work on conquering those challenges accordingly, [and] then we learn from past mistakes and tackle new challenges." People with disabilities often face an added challenge, however, because of the "myths that surround" various disabilities.
Several in the audience soon discovered firsthand how baseless some of the myths that Cantos described can be as he turned confidently with marker in hand to a flip chart beside him. During the rest of his talk, Cantos underscored his message with words and diagrams that he entered almost flawlessly on a surface he could not even see.