For Ollie Cantos, West Covina’s first blind City Council member, optimism and inclusion matter most

Ollie Cantos is the first blind council member for West Covina and the second in US history in West Covina on Friday, January 13, 2023. Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer

Throughout his life, Ollie Cantos says he’s endured his share of bullying, unfairness and other challenges that accompanied being blind since birth.

Such obstacles, West Covina’s first blind City Council member said, thickened his skin — but didn’t harden his heart.

Cantos — also the council’s first member of Filipino descent — landed in the city in 1974 at age 4 after his family emigrated to the U.S. He navigated public school, mastered law school, became a civil rights attorney and has been a tireless advocate for the rights of people with physical challenges since age 20, attaining multiple high-profile roles on various national boards.

On top of all that, he adopted triplet sons, all also blind, and guided them to attain the rank of Eagle Scout together.

So, by comparison, getting things done in city government? No sweat.

“It’s been a blast,” he said.

Cantos has experience, patience and endless leadership cred. But perhaps his most valuable tool as a leader — his enduring optimism.

“You can campaign on positivity and on not getting partisan,” he said, reflecting on his first two months in office. “Just really focusing on the issues that matter to the city — that’s exactly what we were able to do and what we’re moving forward and implementing right away.”

Canto credits his parents for much of his success, including his self-described “tiger mom” who pushed him toward demanding activities, despite his physical challenges.

“They didn’t make it an option for me to just sort of sit around,” said Canto, who attended grade school in Azusa, because of the schools’ resources for the vision impaired, before returning to West Covina for upper-level classes. “(My parents) required me to do well academically.”

Was it easy? Hardly. “To be honest, it was really brutal.” Cantos recalled.

“I finally had that talk with my mom years later,” he said. “She said, ‘Ollie, when I pushed you it isn’t because I didn’t love you. It’s exactly because I do. The world is not going to pad the way for you.’”

Years later, Cantos crafted his own approach to parenting — but with similar levels of success.

Today, the adoptive father of Leo, Nick and Steven holds the accomplishments of his sons — who currently attend Southern Virginia University — as his highest point of pride.

“I feel like they’re my legacy to the world,” said Cantos.

A GoFundMe was created to support the boy’s journeys and is where Cantos updates everyone on their well being.

“I just love those boys with all my heart,” he said. “They’re grown men now, but they’re always my boys.”

Ollie Cantos is the first blind council member for West Covina and the second in US history at the West Covina City Hall in West Covina on Friday, January 13, 2023. Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer

Cantos’ list of things to be proud of, however, is a long one.

At only 20 years old, Cantos volunteered with the National Federation of the Blind and eventually joined its board of directors.

After graduating from Loyola Law School, he became a civil rights attorney and worked at the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles.

Next, he relocated to Washington DC to become general counsel and director of programs for the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Currently, he is a member and attorney mentor for the President’s Commission on Disability Rights (formerly the “Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law”) as part of the American Bar Association.

Additionally, he holds a uniformed equivalent rank of Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and is the first blind person in history to serve as a District Staff Officer – Legal Parliamentarian.

So Cantos brings a hefty resume to his new role back home in West Covina, where he hopes to tap his national experience to fuel grassroots efforts on a nonpartisan basis.

“If we engage with the community and we really have them be equal partners, (where) they are literally meaningfully heard, then all this crazy discontentment that seems to happen will go away,” he said.

Making people feel valued is vital, he said.

Ollie Cantos is the first blind council member for West Covina and the second in US history in West Covina on Friday, January 13, 2023. Photo by Libby Cline-Birmingham, Contributing Photographer

“People are just frustrated when they feel like nobody cares about what they think it’s like, ‘Hey, the elected officials just do what they want. They don’t care.’” he said. “When the residents think that, it just creates more apathy and it completely robs us of the opportunity to create higher community activism.”

Amid the pandemic, Cantos secured a remote work agreement which allows him to stay in his beloved home town and hold City Council office.

For him, encouraging community organizing means that West Covina fosters a ‘leadership pipeline,’ where residents can grow to make an impact at local, state and national levels.

Toward this goal, Canto campaigned on increased transparency and council communication with residents.

In the end, Cantos says his efforts are all about giving back to a place near to his heart.

“This is still home. This has always been my hometown,” he said. “I have memories across this town. I’ve seen this town change. I’ve seen us get bigger and I just love our city and I really have intense West Covina pride,” he said.

“I just love this town.”

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