KAILUA-KONA — More questions exist than answers for the special needs community in West Hawaii as its members attempt to battle barriers to social inclusion.
The same proved true Thursday night at the third annual Inclusion First West Hawaii Disability Legislative Forum. Dozens of special needs people, their family members and advocates arrived armed with hard-hitting questions. But no legislators, either from the county or state level, showed up to answer them.
Reaction to a legislative forum noticeably absent even one lawmaker ranged from disappointment to frustration to anger.
“To our county legislators who chose not to show up tonight, and to any of these people who chose not to show up tonight, we are a community and a force to be reckoned with,” said Zahava Zaidoff, a mental health professional and co-chair of the West Hawaii Community Children’s Council who served as a member of the question-and-answer panel.
“The disabled community, if we all got together … literally we could change everything going on in this state.”
Multiple organizers confirmed efforts to contact and invite every West Hawaii lawmaker from both the state and county levels.
The same organizers noted that several of those politicians made their unavailability known well in advance due to legitimate and verifiable scheduling conflicts. They said some officials, however, decommitted more abruptly, while others ignored invitations entirely.
Alice Bratton, a specialist with the Hawaii County Office of Aging, was particularly disheartened because of the positive political turnout at each of the first two forums in 2016 and 2017.
“We’re saddened by it,” she said. “It’s important for them to be here and hear their community. People are here asking their questions and expressing their needs.”
Those needs are significant and vary greatly over a range of elements of social life many people without special needs scarcely have to think about. The five major areas of concern are transportation, employment, health, education and housing.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients, which include many disabled individuals, are typically steered toward early retirement at the age of 62. At that point, they no longer qualify for Medicaid and aren’t eligible for Medicare until they turn 65.
Thus, one pertinent question was how to bridge that three-year health care gap. Someone from the crowd made a vague reference to options made available through the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare.
Tom Au, manager for the county Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Workforce Development Division, suggested part-time employment during those years as a possible solution.
But neither Au nor the speaker from the audience are experts in the area or could speak to any legislative measures in the pipeline to address what is an obvious problem. That obvious problem may also have an obvious solution, but no one to represent or advocate for that solution sat on the dais Thursday night.
Another question that came up time and again was how and from where the community can generate more money for perpetually under-funded initiatives to serve the special needs population.
Jennifer La‘a, with the state Department of Health, mentioned the Legislature’s annual Grants-In-Aid program, but noted there are specific time frames and that legislators must be contacted to pursue such grants. Au added the county offers educational programs focused on grant writing to those interested.
But no one in attendance could speak definitively to any money that may be in the legislative pipeline for such initiatives, or any funding potentially headed in that direction.
Some issues, however, were illuminated. And the news wasn’t all bad.
“If you are disabled and you want to go to work, right now is a good time,” Au said.
There are more jobs than people to fill them at the moment, he added, and employers in West Hawaii are hard-pressed for reliable help. Kona Community Hospital, named Employer of the Year at Thursday’s forum, has found significant benefit employing special needs individuals.
Au urged anyone interested in exploring the workforce to visit his office.
There was also talk of the paratransit system. A taxi voucher program that used to offer rides to and from work, home and the store for special needs individuals no longer exists in West Hawaii because of the financial losses cab companies incurred.
West Hawaii’s paratransit system, run through Hele-On, now exists as the only viable public transportation option for those with special needs. Karyle Yamane, former manager of the system, said it is vital as 95 percent of paratransit rides originate on the island’s leeward side.
She explained that rides are available for those living in the coverage area, which extends one mile in all directions around the regular mass transit line’s fixed routes — meaning if you live in those areas, the bus will come to your house and pick you up, taking you wherever you need to go.
Those who wish to use the service must fill out an application with the county’s Office of Aging to qualify. The program operates on a reservation-based system and ride requests need to be made 24 hours in advance. Each ride, regardless of distance, costs $4.
New funding for public transportation may render the service considerably more viable beginning next year. Yamane said as the regular mass transit system expands, so naturally will the paratransit system.
Heidi Hargett, named Advocate of the Year Thursday, uses the service to get to and from her job at Safeway. Despite the obstacles she faces just to live in a way most take for granted, her attitude was an example of what even minor conveniences mean in the lives of special needs individuals.
“I said to myself, ‘Why is it expensive (when) the big bus is only $2?’” she told the audience. “Then I said, ‘Wow, I should be grateful that I don’t have to walk 2 miles to catch the big bus.’ I should be grateful. It helps me a lot.”
That’s the kind of help Zaidoff said can only come legislatively and through access to those in office, adding her frustrations are amplified by a lack of videoconferencing options for people to interface with officials during session.
“The lawmakers aren’t here today, right?” she asked rhetorically. “The questions that come up — how are we going to get answers to questions if the lawmakers aren’t here?”