by Winston Chua
Late last week we asked Pasadena’s Patricia Kinaga to talk about some of the vital work she is a part of to assist an underserved population in our community, Asians and Asian Americans with disabilities.
Kinaga, who practices employment litigation in downtown Los Angeles, brings a wealth of experience to this worthy cause, experience that includes her time as a volunteer with Asian Rehab Services, an organization that provides job training and job placement for people with disabilities.
“Through ARS I became aware that people who end up at ARS are exceptions to the rule,” she explained. “There is a cultural and religious stigma in Asian communities and families who end up looking and obtaining services are unusual.”
She tells The Tribune that the stigma around disability is quite pervasive among Asian cultures. Kinaga recounted a story of a Chinese American woman who has difficulty walking due to a physical disability. She would rather go shopping in a mainstream mall rather than in Chinatown, where she would fear the insulting looks that say, “Why aren’t you at home? Why are you out here?”
She added that certain Asian families tend to keep their relatives (sons, daughters, nephews, etc.) at home and not mainstreamed, depriving them of potential social interaction, job opportunities and ways to be healthily integrated into society.
To help with this problem, Kinaga helped to create a non profit organization called Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California, or APIDC. The organization holds conferences to raise awareness about disability. These conferences are an essential strategy to combatting the stigma, even if it means sending buses to ethnic supermarkets or moon festival celebrations so that exposure can be gained. Examples of important topics at those conferences include “how to navigate the government benefits systems” or “how to navigate transportation issues.”
Job opportunities for Asians with disabilities is another important topic the former UCLA Bruin is focusing on. She and APIDC are working to create pathways for students with disabilities to find jobs, making connections with employers of various sizes to encourage them to seriously consider hiring people with disabilities.
“In the next 20 years, we hope to make significant strides for people with disabilities,” she added. “As people live longer, more people in general will face challenges.”
There are great advantages to hiring people with disabilities, she said. Kinaga noted that “the workforce becomes more productive, with good synergistic factors” when you hire and are spend time with a person with a disability.
The former city planner and graduate of Georgetown Law School describes that APIDC held its first annual awards gala in late October. It is through the work of APIDC that “students with disabilities can become advocates,” perhaps the most valuable way to combat the stigma associated with disability.
One of the beneficiaries of APIDC’s work is Daphna Patel, who took some time to speak with The Tribune about the organization’s Youth Leadership Program.
“APIDC has opened up a whole new world for me,” she explained, telling The Tribune that she was discouraged from talking about her own disability. “There’s a tremendous stigma for Asians with disabilities. We never talk about it so many are probably not getting the help or aid they need.”
Patel, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, said that disabilities sometimes only see the light of day in conversation in cases of medical emergencies, but not in the practical, day-to-day aspects of life. APIDC has given Patel the courage to speak out about her life. She recently spoke to the Artesia Rotary Club and hopes to continue advocating for all people with disabilities.
“This organization represents the intersection of my community work and professional work,” Kinaga explained. Much of her work also focuses on finding solutions where discrimination exists.
Kinaga’s resumé includes time spent in Washington D.C. serving on the President’s Committee on Employment of Persons with Disabilities; she believes that many needs are not being addressed from a public policy standpoint.
She has observed that while there are great Pan Asian organizations out in the world, they are not necessarily catered to help those with disabilities. And while there are great rehabilitation organizations out there, they may not necessarily be great at specifically helping Asians, who often deal with issues of shame and stigma. Add to that the difficulty created by language and cultural barriers.
She sees her role and that of APIDC as one which works to bridge the gap.
“We need to raise the visibility of Americans with disabilities for things to get better,” she added. “I do believe (since the founding of APIDC) that there is more of a grassroots level of support which includes more parent organizations. There are a number of organizations which support children with autism, for example.”
Kinaga defines issues of disability as anything physical, mental or developmental that affects a person’s ability to enjoy major life activities (walking, working, concentrating).
She is immensely proud of and understandably excited by three APIDC Leadership Institute graduates from Pasadena City College: Raymond Kwong, Joanne Lee and Patel. Each of these pioneers directly serves to help those with disabilities either through mentorship, being an advocate, providing assistance or a combination of the three. Kinaga calls the three among the “emerging leaders” of tomorrow.
But her optimism is not without concern. She pointed out that Asian women with disabilities are the most underemployed demographic in the United States.
“If you or someone you know has a disability, there are Meetup groups that can provide a safe haven for disclosure,” Kinaga said. Safe support systems help reduce some of the unnecessary isolation one might feel.
The APIDC Lifetime Achievement Award was recently handed out to former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who, when elected mayor of San Jose asked his constituents how to be a better mayor.
“Spend your first week in San Jose in a wheelchair,” a wheelchair-bound campaign member suggested.
Mineta appeared to have taken that experience to heart. His work in Congress included significant work in making national transportation significantly more user-friendly for disabled passengers.
“I believe we’re all one,” Patel added. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link. You have to create your own meaning, purpose and happiness in life and take responsibility for that.”
Kinaga is planning a conference for 2016 and looks forward to reaching out to Hispanic communities to share best practices. She sees similarities between both minority groups.