The KOKUA Program: A Rich History of Serving Students with Disabilities

The KOKUA Program: A Rich History of Serving Students with Disabilities
by Dr. Violet Horvath

Photo: Ann Ito and Vanessa Ito

Which of the following statements is true?

a. The KOKUA Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa was established in 1966.
b. The Rehabilitation Act to address equal access for persons with disabilities was enacted in 1973.
c. The Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteeing equal access for those with disabilities went into effect in 1990.
d. All of the above.

The correct answer is, “d. All of the Above.” If you do the math, that means that in 2016 the KOKUA Program celebrated a remarkable 50 years of service to students with disabilities, including those who are deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind. That’s seven years before the Rehabilitation Act and 24 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, making KOKUA one of the earliest (if not the earliest) such program at an institution of higher learning in the United States.

The KOKUA Program was borne of a grassroots movement. It was students from various honor societies helping other students who had disabilities and/or who had potential but needed a little extra support in order to reach that potential. They provided assistance such as reader services for the blind, and tutoring. Eventually, the students recognized they needed help from University administration. While honor students graduated every year and new students took their place, the demand for help remained.

The honor students found an advocate in Mrs. Grace Merritt, who was an advisor to the Hui Po’okela Chapter of Mortar Board, a prestigious national honor society for seniors. University administration understood the need for and importance of such services, and KOKUA was established in September of 1966. Mrs. Merritt became its first Director. In its early days, it was a two-part program. One part served persons with disabilities, primarily those with hearing or vision loss, or who had physical disabilities, especially those who used wheelchairs.

The other part focused on tutoring underprepared students, those who could do well in college but needed strengthening in areas such as English or math. At the time, tutoring comprised the largest segment of services provided. In 1996, the need for services for students with disabilities had grown so large that tutoring services were moved to another department. Since then, KOKUA’s focus has been on equal access for students with disabilities.

The program’s title, KOKUA, has dual meanings. In Hawaiian, kokua is translated variously as “help,” or “assistance,” or it can refer to a “helper,” or “counselor.” But KOKUA is always shown in capital letters. This is because it is an acronym for “Kahi O Ka Ula ‘Ana,” or “The Place of Growing.” It received its name early in its history from former ethnobotany graduate student Mary Kaikainahaole, who was a recipient of services.

In typically modest fashion, staff at KOKUA kept the 50-year milestone and celebration quiet, choosing instead to keep the focus on students. The model for humility stems from the top. KOKUA Director Ann Ito, who is blind, has been with the organization almost continuously since its second year of existence. She was a graduate student in 1967, then KOKUA librarian, then KOKUA counselor. She became Director in 1983 after Mrs. Merritt retired in 1982.

For Ann, work is a family affair. Her daughter, Vanessa Ito, received the Master of Social Work degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work. Vanessa began work at KOKUA in 2003 as a counselor and became Associate Director in 2009.

Ann and Vanessa lead a dedicated staff of counselors, specialists, and others. Over the years, additional staff have been added to meet continually growing demand. In the beginning, counting only students with disabilities (and not those receiving tutoring), KOKUA served about 15 students. Now staff members work with approximately 1500 individuals per year who have disabilities, from freshmen to graduate students. Even with an increase, there are still not enough staff members.

Outside forces have contributed to the increased need for services. Nationally, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was a major influence. Technology has had an impact, both positive and negative. For example, while texting is highly beneficial for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, for those who are blind or have low vision, it can be difficult to use smartphones and apps.

Other factors closer to home have also played a part, such as when the KOKUA office moved to the center of campus. In 1988, taking a second language became mandatory for all students. Previously, only those in Arts and Sciences had such a requirement. The requirement brought many students to KOKUA, particularly those with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, mental health disorders, and health disorders that prevented them from attending class regularly.

These days, most students who seek out KOKUA have hidden disabilities. Wounded Warriors now make up a large subset of seekers of services. There has been a rise in the number of students who need housing accommodations.

Other changes noted by Ann and Vanessa are that students have already been diagnosed by the time they reach college, and come in to KOKUA earlier, even in their freshman year, to request services. All services are voluntary and confidential.
One misperception is about what KOKUA does, and does not do. KOKUA helps provide equal access. They cannot guarantee success; that is up to the student. Counselors do not tell students what to study, or take exams for them. There are no compromises in terms of academic or conduct standards.

Ann says that faculty members have always been supportive of students and KOKUA. Staff members provide education for faculty about disabilities and those from other cultures in which disabilities are not viewed in the same way as the United States. As faculty members themselves age, they begin to encounter more challenges. A professor may be concerned because students are complaining about his or her teaching and it is because the professor can’t hear them. There are more vision and physical problems.

Ann and Vanessa understand that there will be more demand and more changes as time goes on. Students and faculty of the University of Hawaii at Manoa are fortunate to have KOKUA as a remarkable resource, with its rich history and dedicated, hard-working staff. Congratulations on 50 years of helping to ensure equal access for all persons with disabilities.

For more information on the KOKUA Program and services offered, call or text 808-956-7511 or 808-956-7612, or email