Observations of Richard, as a quadriplegic, visiting Honolulu and what he learned about designing great street kerbs, a state government policy office on disability, transport services for disabled people and the Centre for Independent Living run by and for disabled people

20 January 1982 – Article on observations in a family trip to Hawaii

Late in December 1981, I visited Hawaii on a nine-day family holiday and spent some time researching various aspects of provisions for disabled people. The four key areas of disability structures and services which interested me include Physical Access, a Commission on the Handicapped, transport services for disabled people and the Centre for Independent Living. All have, I feel, some relevance for us in Australia at this crucial time in setting post-IYDP objectives and decisions.

Honolulu street kerb designs

The access provisions in Honolulu, Hawaii with its 900,000 population were very impressive. The street kerbs were large 3′ wide, 1:12 sloped, cut-away and traction grooved at every city intersection. The sides of these ramps were sloped off too, 2′ on each side making them wider and easier to negotiate when crossing with a number of other pedestrians. There were no lips at the bottom of these ramps, adding to their convenience.

In Adelaide, I have always been told by engineers that ramps of the Hawaii type are not used because of the danger to other pedestrians and for drainage reasons.

No longer am I convinced by that argument, because no Adelaide street could compare with the promenading pedestrian traffic on Kalakalua Avenue, with the famous Waikiki Beach on one side
and a multitude of street level, accessible shops on the other. I neither saw difficulties for other pedestrians nor did their “City Hall” report knowing of any problems. As for drainage, Hawaii being tropical, measures its rainfall in feet and water flooding caused by these ramps was neither a reported nor an apparent problem.

The number of wheelchair tourists were surprising and should be of interest to tourist conscious Adelaide when T.A.A. estimates 1 wheelchair per flight to and from Adelaide and Qantas 2 per flight with frequently large groups entering and leaving Australia daily. I have no doubt the ease of access was at least part of the reason for this high visibility and obviously has made it a favourite destination.

Commission on the Handicapped

The Commission was formed in 1977 to take over from the existing “Governor’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped.” The use of the word ‘handicapped’ has been traditionally used in United States regulations. Because this word is not definitionally linked with impairment there are many problems regarding eligibility in North America.

    Twenty-one members are appointed by the Governor, of whom at least nine must be disabled people. Other members are Directors of Health, Social Services, Labour and Industrial Relations and Personnel Services. The Director of Education and the President of the University of Hawaii are ex-officio non-voting members. The Chairman must be from non-government and serves a two-year term only.

    1. Co-ordinate and act as clearing house of public/private activities.
    2. Review and assess services and resources for mentally and physically disabled people.
    3. Conduct research projects, workshops and conferences.
    4. Advise State Government and departments on pertinent matters.
    5. Develop short and long-term goals.


    • Educate both the public and disabled people.
    • Seek improvements of existing service systems.
    • Public advocacy.
    • Initiate and maintain liaison with other organisations.
    • Administer its own funds from Department of Health budget line.


    The staff I saw were all able-bodied. Staff members consists of:

    • Executive Secretary
    • Information specialist, and P.R. Speaker
    • Researcher
    • Secretary
    • 3 Part time researchers and students (when available)

    Controlled by the Commissioner – rent allocated through the Department of Health – U.S.$143,000, annually. Covers: staff, printing, conferences etc. Approx. a further U.S.$20,000 comes from donations, grants etc.

    Policy-oriented, task forces attempt to tackle 6 major projects per year.

    They have an enormous task. Too few staff to comply with all terms of reference, thereby disappointing many disabled people. The importance of combining physical and mental disability in one Commission (earlier they were separated which proved ineffective). The Commission structure allowed maximum independence from Government but with close working relationship. (Departments used Commission for advice.) The Commission is an excellent storehouse for publications, their own and others. The office has produced cheap but excellent booklets e.g. “Key to Resources” which lists all available accessible Hawaiian services in one catalog.

    Transport services for disabled people

    The Executive officer of the Commission suggested I should join this transport service – The Handi Van – for my stay and I consequently presented myself at City Hall, paid a dollar and became Client 11457, after a brief check to see that I was disabled.

    This entitled me to travel anywhere on the Island (60 miles long) between 6.45 am and 4.30 pm five days a week for one dollar per trip, provided I booked 24 hours ahead. After the first ride of the day, I was picked up with 5-15 minutes waiting time after my call. My companions (able-bodied) could travel with me for a further dollar per head.

    This public service of Honolulu City Council has been operating since 1976 and uses 33 vehicles for a population of 900,000. A private contractor operates the scheme using Wayne Busette’s with side hoists. The Wayne Busette is a specially made semi-production line vehicle, built in the United States. It is about the same size as a Bedford van but with dual wheels and high ceiling. The configuration of those I used was four wheelchairs and probably six – ten seated passengers. It is a very comfortable vehicle with good passenger vision. All vehicles are radio controlled.

    These vehicles also carry those people the St. John Clinic cars cover in Adelaide ie. – those people attending hospital out-patient clinics, day centres, sheltered workshops etc. In December 1981, there were over 11,000 Registrations with the Hawaiian service, carrying an average 1200 passengers daily. (St. John Clinic cars carry approx. 420 persons a day – All must be able to transfer.)


    The contractor keeps the dollar clients contribute and receives $6.65 subsidy per trip from the City of Honolulu. The annual cost to the City (About the same as Adelaide) is a little over U.S. $2 million.

    I found this an excellent service, although criticised by some for its 5-day week, office-hours operating time. A late-night Friday, Saturday and Saturday night service is being sought. The Hawaiian service costs less than South Australia pay to St. John alone and has a more universal benefit to all people with disabilities, serving the working sector as first priority Vehicles are small, requiring no special license, with better comfort and purpose capacity than our expensive Toyota types The 33 vehicles for a population of 900,000 makes the 11 vehicles capable of carrying one wheelchair bought for the Sydney service seem a sham. I believe the Sydney scheme will fail because:

    1. Too expensive for clients.
    2. Wrong choice of vehicles.
    3. Insufficient vehicles and capacity.

    Centre for Independent Living

    Highly recommended by the Commission and by some Americans at DPI in Singapore as a Centre for action, run by disabled people. The Centre began in June 1981 with a grant of U.S.$300,000 from Federal Government.

    The Hawaii Centre for Independent Living “(HCIL) is an organisation run for and by disabled people. The HCIL’s main purpose is the provision of support services that enable disabled people to live independently in the community. The HCIL, is based upon the concept of people with differing disabilities working together to improve the quality of life and services to their community.

    HCIL will serve all disability groups – the orthopedically disabled, the mentally disabled, the blind, the deaf and the developmentally disabled. The guiding principles of the philosophy of HCIL are that those who know best the needs of the disabled people and how to meet those needs are the disabled people themselves.


    The needs of the disabled can be met effectively by comprehensive programs which provide a variety of services. Disabled people should be integrated as fully as possible in their community.

    The HCIL is the result of a joint community effort of both concerned service providers and highly motivated disabled consumers, who came together to create a Centre for Independent Living in Hawaii.


    • Outreach to locate and identify clients
    • Peer counselling and training
    • Advocacy and financial counselling
    • Independent living training and placement
    • Development of community resources for personal care attendants
    • Job placement assistance
    • Housing assistance
    • Continuing support services to maintain maximum levels of independence


    • Executive Director $20,000 (disabled)
    • Administrative Assistant $12,000 (Able bodied)
    • 4 Peer Counsellors (each with different disabilities.)
    • 1 Accountant (disabled)
    • 1 Researcher (disabled)
    • 1 Receptionist/typist (disabled)
    • 3 Independent Living Skill Trainers – Volunteers.


    The Centre operates from three small rooms in obviously cramped conditions, especially considering the number of wheelchairs users. There was a feeling of casual vitality with phones ringing, people coming and going. Prior to our appointment, the Director had explained to a deaf lady through a signer, her rights entitlements on a number of issues and a 100-year-old lady rang to engage an attendant while
    we were there.

    Roles best suited to two disability empowering organisations

    The Centre and the Commission performed different roles but acted reciprocally and were supportive to each other.

    The Commission on the Handicapped, staffed by public servants, seemed best suited to legislative research, publications, government inter-departmental liaising and possible long-term views.

    The Centre for Independent Living, mainly staffed by skilled disabled people, seemed best suited to peer counselling, advice, information, advocacy & action and publicity.