Speaking out: Legislators hear from community at annual disabilities forum

  • Representatives from Arc of Kona attend the West Hawaii Disability Legislative Forum. (Elizabeth Pitts/West Hawaii Today)
  • Legislators speak at the West Hawaii Disability Legislative Forum on Thursday at Old Kona Airport Park. (Elizabeth Pitts/West Hawaii Today)

  • Quentin Wong, center, poses with Lt. Gov. Josh Green on Thursday at the West Hawaii Disability Legislative Forum on Thursday at Old Kona Airport Park.

  • Mickey Rooney presents Safeway Store #1501 the award for Employer of the Year at the West Hawaii Disability Legislative Forum on Thursday at Old Kona Airport Park. (Photos by Elizabeth Pitts/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — In the mostly rural communities of the Big Island, it’s important for those with disabilities to make sure their voices are heard by the people in power.

It was something Lt. Gov. Josh Green emphasized Thursday at the West Hawaii Disabilities Legislative Forum at Old Kona Airport Park.

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“If we don’t speak up, there’s very little chance that we’re going to get what we need for ourselves and West Hawaii,” Green said.

Many from the Big Island community spoke up and voiced their concerns at the fourth annual forum, which covered housing, health, transportation, education and employment for those with disabilities.

Green was a part of a forum panel that also included Sen. Dru Kanuha’s chief of staff Tonga Hopoi, Rep. Nicole Lowen, Rep. David Tarnas, Councilman Tim Richards, Councilwoman Karen Eoff, Mass Transit operations assistant Betty Alcover, and Department of Labor Workforce Development Division office manager Tom Au.

The eight-person turnout for this year’s forum was better than in 2018. Last year’s forum was absent of legislators from both the county and state levels, which organizers attributed to the forum being held in the middle of last year’s election season.

Housing was a big concern among the attendees of the forum, mostly due to the affordability of housing on the island.

“We have a tremendous need for affordable housing in general in our county. We need an estimated 25,000 units by the year 2025. We are in desperate need for that,” Richards said. “In my district alone, we have six projects in the works for affordable housing, and a portion of that will be for disability housing, so we have to make sure we get these projects built.”

Richards said it is more difficult to build affordable housing than luxury housing, and it’s up to the legislators to make sure affordable housing projects get pushed through.

Eoff said affordable housing projects are being looked at in parts of West Hawaii that will also have easy access to the bus routes.

“In Waikoloa and in Kealakehe as well, we’re looking at state land and we’re partnering with the state to produce affordable homes in that area,” Eoff said.

Access to the bus routes is important to those with disabilities, who may rely on public transportation to get to work and to their medical appointments.

Richards said there needs to be 35 running buses a day to cover the bus routes on the island. Currently, he said, only a dozen owned by the county are running, and the rest are contracted out.

“This is a big issue,” Arc of Kona program director Jeri Raymond said. “We have people that have been stranded at places like Costco because of the bus system, and people trying to get to work and they don’t run on Sundays and holidays. How are they supposed to get to their jobs?”

Green told the panel and the audience Thursday he understands the questions being asked, and wants to find the solutions when he returns to Oahu. He said he was born deaf, and his parents didn’t understand why he wasn’t speaking or developing properly until he was 2 years old.

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He said the services his parents were finally able to access made the difference of him getting the procedures required to fix his hearing. He said wants everyone in West Hawaii — those with disabilities, their caretakers and the community — to have the same care.

“Without those services and without so many other people helping, all of us have those same challenges,” Green said. “So I really wanted to say I feel deep in my heart when our parents fight for us in the community and what you guys fight for when you want to make sure your lives are just as good as everyone else’s lives and when you fight to be treated like equals.”

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