I grew up in a city very much like Honolulu, in a seaside town called Qingdao in China. I had no idea about the United States back then.
I worked as a biology teacher when I was in China, met my then husband, and we had a son. My son was about 4 years-old when his father got an opportunity to advance his education in Hawai`i. Of course, we followed him!
The move to Hawai`i gave me opportunities as well. I enrolled at the University of Hawai`i and studied epidemiology with an emphasis in statistics, graduating with my Master’s degree. It allowed me to work in the health industry for many years – it built on my teaching days in China.
I had thought about becoming a United States citizen when I first arrived, and even tried to start the process a couple of years ago. It was very difficult for me to understand the paperwork because my first language is Mandarin. In my first attempt, I didn’t really have anyone helping me and I gave up. Then I heard about the Legal Aid Society of Hawai`i and met with a staff attorney!
The people at Legal Aid helped so much. They are such wonderful professionals, very knowledgeable with details and the process. Without Legal Aid’s help, I would not have been able to become a U.S. citizen.
Now that I am a citizen, I am applying for new employment opportunities – positions that will help even more, and also build the future that I want. I do think that my professional background in health can help our community, especially given what we are going through today. Thank you to Legal Aid for helping me get here!
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii helped make strides for my son, Jason, to be included in his first field trip with his non-disabled peers.
After years of long battles with the Department of Education, this year, Jason was allowed to participate in an overnight statewide student conference, complete with behavior support and accommodations because of his disability. He was the school’s first student representative who had disabilities and a special education IEP.
Jason learned to advocate at the Legislature alongside all students.
Before I came to Legal Aid, the school asked me to arrange for and pay extra for separate accommodations, to be present for the 2-night stay, and to transport my son to and from the Capitol, not required of other parents. The school would provide a behavior support technician, but only during regular school hours. Jason would not be able to participate fully.
I believed this was unfair and I could not pay more than the regular conference fee. To make inclusion possible this time, I needed an advocate.
The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Whole Child Project came through!
Their staff attorney taught me how Sec. 504 is a law that guarantees a student equal access to extracurricular activities. I learned to write an effective letter explaining how imposing the requirements due to my son's disability would deny my son equal access to participate.
A separate special education was not enough for my son. He wanted to be included, too.
I encourage parents of students with disabilities to ask the school and district staff for -- and expect -- their children to be included in field trips and extracurricular activities with the supports they may need. When your student is denied, this legal battle for inclusion can be won.
I would like parents and others to know the breakthrough that the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii made for all students to have equal access and to be included.
- Linda Elento, mother of Jason Elento