PASADENA, Calif. — Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California (APIDC), a non-profit volunteer-run organization that assists with bridging the services and cultural barriers faced by the Asian and Pacific Islander community, hosted its fifth statewide conference on March 18 and 19, at the Westin Hotel in this city.
With over 400 people in attendance on both days, the conference aimed to facilitate an exchange of learning ideas and resources through workshop sessions, panel discussions, and exhibitors.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone who shares the same vision of improving services, and striving for creating an environment for people with disabilities. We are one big family,” said APIDC Chair and co-founder Patricia Kinaga.
Noting that the event happens every three to five years throughout California, Kinaga said, “I think these conferences are so well-attended, because there is such a need. We do this to help educate the mainstream service organizations, who do not know how to reach a lot of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It’s a special opportunity for them to find out how to better access mainstream services.”
Enlightening workshops included mental health disparities, autism, occupational therapy, health care and the Affordable Care Act, civil rights in employment and transportation, technology access, financial issues, special education, and outreach to the community.
“We provide people with a safe space to come and share their stories, and meet others who are going through the same thing,” said Peter Wong, APIDC Research Director. “Asian Americans are always the last to sort of catch up. Now we are being included, asking more questions, learning about access to services and rights, to improve our quality of life.”
Asian Americans with disabilities have gotten the lowest in funding for employment, according to APIDC research. They are also the most underemployed demographic than any other group in the US.
The two-day event also happened to fall on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has changed the lives of so many people by giving them better mobility access and resources.
“The 25th anniversary [of the ADA] created an opportunity for it to be a momentous conference. It was an opportunity for us to look back at progress in the last 25 years,” Kinaga noted. “But it’s also a reminder how many issues are still needed to be addressed, as they relate to APIs with disabilities. We have a long ways to go, because of cultural barriers.”
APIDC’s first conference took place in 2001, and was the first convening of physical/mental health service providers, elected officials, organizations, educators, families, and consumers in the disabled community.
“We looked around and realized the great need,” said Kinaga. “we started doing original research, looked at data, looked at the needs of our community We realized we needed to train the next generation of young adults with disabilities, so that they can become community leaders. We needed to network more, through social meet-ups. We generated fundraisers, came up with an action plan, and all the while the APIDC conferences continued to grow.”
Consumers, families, agencies, and advocates gathered together in the Pasadena Westin ballroom that weekend, with more than 30 exhibitors showcasing their useful services to participants.
Conference co-chairs and APIDC board members Johnna Cho and June Kuehn introduced special guests at the conference, including activists, community groups and elected officials.
Pasadena Vice Mayor and City Councilmember Gene Masuda welcomed the crowd on March 18. “The goal is to improve the quality of life of all persons with disabilities, focus on strength, celebrating successes, and being open to opportunities. Learn as much as you can here, so that you can become an advocate. I am confident that you will gain new knowledge and feel empowered with this experience.”
The conference kicked off with a ceremonial tea, featuring the Vice Mayor and Miss Wheelchair CA Foundation owner Jennifer Kumiyama, who was crowned in 2010.
“This conference and organization [are] very important,” Kumiyama, who was born with arthrogryposis, shared. “As an API myself, I grew up in a culture where, if you’re different, with any sort of disability, you’re kind of put in the background. People don’t realize that you’re there. And I think that we as a community as a whole are as strong as our weakest link.”
“If you take advantage of what the APIDC offers, you’re on the right path to becoming a proactive advocate for people with disabilities,” she added.
As a non-profit, APIDC continues to promote the rights and accessibilities of the disabled community, connecting them to accessible opportunities, and debunking cultural stigmas. It also develops youth leaders through their Youth Leadership Institute, a yearly program aimed to identify and train young people to become leading advocates for AAPIs with disabilities.
Left and right at the conference were stories of people who overcame their struggles, by not letting it define them.
“As people with disabilities, we used to be invisible…but today, we have gained confidence, and work to change the environment so that we could participate,” shared Lillibeth Navarro, Executive Director of Communities Actively Living Independent & Free, and a speaker at the conference. “I learned more about the disability rights movement. It’s not just an American thing; it affects us Filipinos too.”
“One thing that binds us all together is the common struggle. It’s our shared story, across all generations. Our Lolas and Lolos, those with disabilities. We all have close cultural ties; we bring to the table our families and friends, and our people are very persevering.”
Navarro’s work as an advocate for the disabled community includes increasing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for people who need extra financial help.
Brian Thomas McGrath, a student at Pasadena City College, sustained brain and spinal cord injuries in a serious motorcycle accident.
“I’ve always liked working won my feet; always been a kinesthetic learner. When I started taking welding classes, I was still shaking and stuttering,” he shared.
Thomas left the hospital in three months to return to school, where he initially faced huge challenges in his speech and memory.
“Studying the bookwork and practicing welding [in college] has been a continuation of my physical and occupational therapy. It’s so much fun — I get paid to melt metal, make loud noises, and I teach others now. It sparked a light in me.”
“There are some days that it feels like this will never end…you’ve got to push through those dark days,” Thomas continued. “It’s not going to stay dark forever. Don’t give up hope.”
Ms. Wheelchair California 2014 Theresa de Vera proudly wears her title with a shiny crown pin, while continuing to serve her community on the Los Angeles City Commission on Disability. An advocate, de Vera has pushed for reform in special education, transportation and mobility infrastructure, and supported the installation of access stands at LAX to make it easier for drivers to know when and where to pick up riders.
“Embrace yourself for who you are and what you offer to the world,” de Vera shared, flashing her Miss Wheelchair pin. “I want to teach my future children that they can live as normal of a life in the chair, as they can without.” (Allyson Escobar / AJPress)