Disability Advocacy through History: Asian-American Disability Rights Leaders


Ollie Cantos

Olegario Cantos VIII was raised in Los Angeles, the eldest child of two Filipino immigrants, and is blind.   Growing up, his parents expected him to do chores and do well in school just like his sighted siblings.  They taught him to take pride in himself and to nurture his interests despite difficulties he may find along the way.  Their guidance lead Ollie Cantos to excel, eventually becoming the highest-ranking person with a disability in the U.S. federal government.

Cantos attended law school at Loyola Marymount University, graduating in 1997.  He is Special Assistant to the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, Attorney Mentor for the American Bar Association Commission on Disability Rights, Vice President of the Virginia Association of Parents of Blind Children, and Member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.  He has held many notable positions since the 90s, including Staff Attorney and Director of Outreach and Education at the Disability Rights Legal Center, General Counsel and Director of Programs at the American Association of People with Disabilities, Special Assistant and later Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, and Associate Director for Domestic Policy at the White House under President George W. Bush, Vice President of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Chairman of the Board for Scholarships for Eagles, President of the California Association of Blind Students and the National Association of Blind Students, and member of the boards of directors of the Blind Children’s Center (the first blind person to do so), the California Association to Promote the Use of Braille, and the National Federation of the Blind of California.

“The commitment to advancing intersectionality is essential as we each seek to identify our own implicit bias and then to take conscious and organized steps to address them and then to help teach others… This is what places us in the position of constant learning as we take concrete steps to act on those lessons to build new bridges of understanding and support.” – Ollie Cantos

Cantos’ ambitions turned to family in 2010, when he began mentoring Steven, Leo, and Nick, blind triplets from Colombia.  The boys were being raised in South Arlington by their mother and grandmother when Cantos met them.  They were living sheltered lives but, at ten, they were hungry to explore the world around them.  Cantos eventually left his high-ranking positions to focus on helping Steven, Leo, and Nick, and officially adopted them in 2015.  In 2017, the triplets graduated high school and a few months later became Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts earned only by about 4% of all Boy Scouts.

“Our dad really helped us to do these sorts of things. He really did support us… If we didn’t have him, we really wouldn’t have been able to do this Eagle Scout thing.” – Steven Cantos

Currently, one of his top priorities is making hate crime reports more accessible to communities of color.  He encourages others to speak up against racism, from reporting micro-aggressions, reaching out to elected officials, raising cultural awareness in the workplace, or even just checking in on our Asian-American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander peers during a time when anti-Asian hate crimes have risen significantly.

“As a society, yet again, we are at a critical crossroads… By coming together to amplify our voices… we each get to BE the change we want to see.”  — Ollie Cantos



Cape, K. (2021, May 26). Ollie Cantos: A driving force in reshaping intersectional visibility. Respect Ability. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.respectability.org/2021/05/profile-ollie-cantos/

Minority Corporate Counsel Association. (2018, July 13). Olegario D. Cantos VII. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://mcca.com/mcca-people/olegario-cantos-vii/

THE ORG. (n.d.). Ollie Cantos – Chairman at Respectability. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://theorg.com/org/respectability/org-chart/ollie-cantos

Revilla, C. (2019, February 6). Breaking the glass ceiling with Ollie Cantos and triplets Steven, Nick and leo. Respect Ability. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.respectability.org/2018/09/breaking-the-glass-ceiling-with-ollie-cantos-and-triplets-steven-nick-and-leo/

Schwartz, S., & Francis, E. (2017, December 1). Blind triplets credit their father with helping them earn highest rank in Boy Scouts. ABC News. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://abcnews.go.com/US/blind-triplets-credit-father-helping-earn-highest-rank/story?id=50772389

Written by Sherri Dalphonse | Published on September 7, 2016. (2016, September 7). Meet an amazing blind man raising blind triplets. Washingtonian. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.washingtonian.com/2016/09/07/meet-amazing-blind-man-raising-blind-triplets-2/



Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth was born in March of 1968, in Thailand.  She lived in Thailand until she was 16 before her family moved to Hawaii.  In 1989, she graduated from the University of Hawaii and in 1992 received her master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University.  She also joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while at George Washington University.  She was a member of the House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017, and became the Illinois State Senator in 2017.

In 2004, while working on her doctorate at Northern Illinois University, Duckworth, who was now a member of the National Guard, was called into active duty and sent to Iraq.  While serving, the helicopter she was piloting was shot down, and Duckworth had to have both of her legs amputated as a result.  She was awarded the Purple Heart later that year while attending rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  She remained in the military until 2014, when she retired as a lieutenant colonel.  In 2015, she finally received her doctorate in human services from Capella University.

“I fell in love with the military, especially the discipline it required and the fact that it was a true meritocracy… I felt such an overwhelming sense of patriotism that I was putting on my nation’s uniform and swearing to defend her with my life.” – Tammy Duckworth

Duckworth first ran for office in 2006 but was defeated.  For the next three years, she served as Illinois’ Director of Veterans’ Affairs.  In 2009, she became assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, until she resigned in 2011 so she could run for the House of Representatives from the 8th congressional district of Illinois again.  This time, she succeed in being elected, and she took office in 2013.

In 2016, Duckworth ran for the U.S. Senate, eventually defeating incumbent Mark Kirk and becoming the first U.S. senator born in Thailand.  She is the first female senator to use a wheelchair and also went on to become the first woman to give birth while serving as a U.S. senator.

In 2019, Duckworth received the Gordon Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and in 2020 received the ADA Legacy Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities.  In 2021, Duckworth published a memoir called Every Day Is a Gift.  In her role as senator, she continues to focus on veteran affairs and disability rights.

“I want to congratulate AAPD for 25 incredible years of working on the issues that matter most – from education to healthcare, voting to housing, you’ve refused to let Americans with disabilities be pushed to the margins… While we’ve come a long way since the ink dried on the ADA 30 years ago, everyone here knows how far we still have to go over the next 30 to make this country actually truly accessible.” — Tammy Duckworth



Azike, C. (2021, May 23). Sen. Tammy Duckworth serves as role model for many. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.respectability.org/2021/05/tammy-duckworth-aapi-disability/

McNamee, G. L. (2017, January 3). Tammy Duckworth. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tammy-Duckworth

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. (2020, March 11). Duckworth honored with American Association of People with Disabilities’ Ada legacy award. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.duckworth.senate.gov/news/press-releases/duckworth-honored-with-american-association-of-people-with-disabilities-ada-legacy-award



Mazie Hirono

Mazie Keiko Hirono was born in 1947 in Japan.  In 1955, she and her brother moved to Honolulu with their mother following her parents’ divorce.  Hirono earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hawaii in 1970 and received a law degree from Georgetown University in 1978.  In 1980, she ran for the Hawaii House of Representatives and won.  From 1994 to 2002, she was the Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii.  In 2006, she joined the U.S. House of Representatives, serving three terms there, until she won the U.S. Senate position in 2012.  She is Hawaii’s first female senator.

In 2017, Hirono was diagnosed with kidney cancer.  She underwent extensive cancer treatment, including a surgery to remove her right kidney and a rib, and found herself a member of the disability community that she had long been supporting through her efforts to reform healthcare and, specifically, the Medicare for All bill.  She continues to be the only immigrant Senator at this time, having become a naturalized citizen in 2013.

 “We are all one diagnosis away from a major illness. When that time comes, no one should have to worry about whether they can afford the care that might save their life.” –Mazie Hirono

In 2021, Hirono published a memoir called Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story.



Dingeman, R. (2020, October 13). Political Survivor: A Closer Look at Hawaiʻi’s First Female Senator, Mazie Hirono. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.honolulumagazine.com/political-survivor-a-closer-look-at-hawai%CA%BBis-first-female-senator-mazie-hirono/

Martin, M. (2021, April 18). Quiet no more: Sen. Hirono’s immigrant journey fuels her fire in Congress. NPR. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2021/04/18/988182842/quiet-no-more-sen-hironos-immigrant-journey-fuels-her-fire-in-congress

McNamee, G. L. (2015, May 29). Mazie Hirono. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mazie-Hirono

Santo, S. (2021, May 23). Hawaii sen. Mazie Hirono recognized for leadership as an immigrant and as a person with a disability. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.respectability.org/2021/05/mazie-hirono-aapi-disability/

Senator Hirono: A Voice for Hawaii in the U.S. Senate. (2017, September 12). Hirono announces support for Medicare for all. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.hirono.senate.gov/news/press-releases/hirono-announces-support-for-medicare-for-all



Alice Wong

Alice Wong (she/her) was born in March 1974 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Her parents are immigrants from Hong Kong.  At birth, Wong was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, and she stopped walking around age 7.  Growing up, she was frequently both the only Asian-American student in her class and the only student with a disability.  In 1997, she graduated from Indiana University at Indianapolis with degrees in English and sociology and earned a master’s degree in medical sociology from the University of California, San Francisco.

After graduating, Wong became a Staff Research Associate at UCSF and worked there for over ten years.  She conducted research focused on disability rights and helped train direct care professionals on giving personal care services to those with disabilities who wanted to remain independent in their communities.  In 2013, she was appointed by President Obama to the National Council on Disability, an “independent federal agency that advises the U.S. government on policies, programs, and practices that affect people with disabilities. She served on the council until 2015.

In 2014, Wong launched the Disability Visibility Project in partnership with StoryCorps, helping people with disabilities to record their own oral histories.  She also worked on several other disability access projects and is a board member of the 18 Million Rising, an advocacy group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.  In 2007 she received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the first-ever Chancellor’s Disability Service Award from UCSF, the Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities in 2016, and the Indiana University Bicentennial Medal in 2020.  In 2020 she was also recognized by Time as one of 16 notable people fighting for equality in America.

“I want to create a world that is reflective of all of us. This is my life’s work.” – Alice Wong

Wong’s memoir, Year of the Tiger, is available for preorder and will hit shelves on September 6th, 2022.



Brandman, M. (2021). Alice Wong. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/alice-wong

Darden, J. (2021, September 24). Activist Alice Wong on the joys and challenges of being disabled. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.kalw.org/post/activist-alice-wong-joys-and-challenges-being-disabled

Dinh, T., & Wong, A. (2022, May 19). About: The Disability Visibility Project. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/about/

Joseph, N., Lee, J., & Zhang, S. (2022, April 17). Year of the Tiger with Alice Wong. Annenberg Media. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.uscannenbergmedia.com/2022/04/17/year-of-the-tiger/

Lu, W. (2021, May 5). Alice Wong wants to make space for more disabled Asian Americans like her. HuffPost. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/alice-wong-make-space-disabled-asian-americans_n_607dd152e4b0df3610bee777

Ong, G. (2020, August 31). Asian American Alice Wong Forefronts the Magic Within the Disability Community in “Disability Visibility.” Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.mochimag.com/arts-culture/disability-visibility/