Whether Matthew Sakamoto would be able to hold a job after high school was always a big question mark.

Sakamoto was born with a cognitive developmental delay. At 19, the Roosevelt High School student reads at a level akin to an elementary school student.

But he also has a friendly, unreserved personality and a vigor to learn.

Last year, Roosevelt launched a partnership with Waikiki’s Outrigger Hotels and Resorts to provide some of the school’s special education students with on-the-job training and work experience. Sakamoto applied, interviewed and landed a one-year unpaid internship split between two of the hotel group’s busy Waikiki resorts.

Sakamoto is one of six interns from Roosevelt who are now building their resumes within Outrigger’s food service, bellman, housekeeping, maintenance and administrative departments. The goal is to equip the interns with the competitive tools and experience they need to land a job in the hospitality industry upon graduation from the program.

Members of Outrigger’s management team said the hotel group will consider hiring some of the interns in June.

Generating a more robust supply of meaningful employment opportunities is an important part of a systemwide overhaul underway at the Hawaii Health Department’s Developmental Disabilities Division.

Matthew Sakamoto wipes down tables at Hokulani timeshare.
Matthew Sakamoto, seen here wiping down tables at Hokulani timeshare in Waikiki, is one of six Roosevelt High School special education students who are interns with Outrigger Hotels and Resorts. 

In 2014, the federal government issued a final rule establishing enhanced standards that require states to offer people with developmental disabilities more opportunities to set their own goals, choose their own pursuits and dictate their own schedules. To comply with the rule, Hawaii health regulators are retooling the state’s programs and services to better cater to participants’ individual needs and wishes.

States have until March 2022 to implement the changes.

“It’s a watershed rule that says you can’t replicate the experience of being in an institution in the community,” said Mary Brogan, the division’s administrator. “We can no longer have people spending six hours a day doing a meaningless activity, like puzzles or building headsets for airplanes, where they are isolated from the rest of society. And that is how a lot of these people have been treated.”

She added, “If people have other life goals — if their vision of a good life is not to sit there and do puzzles for the rest of their life — and what they really want to do is to have a part-time job or to be able to garden or have a boyfriend or pursue some other interest, then they should be able to do that.”

Setting Goals For The Future

The division serves nearly 3,000 Hawaii residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, Down’s Syndrome and Tourette’s disorder. Its annual budget is jointly funded by the state and federal government, which contributes about $1.13 for every state dollar. In fiscal year 2019, the state contributed $65 million.

To ensure ongoing federal funding, Gov. David Ige has requested a $7.7 million budget increase to the division’s budget in fiscal year 2020 and a $5.8 million jump in funding in fiscal year 2021. The funds would help implement planned program changes by providing higher pay to developmental disability workers.

For Hawaii, the new standards represent a drastic change in approach for housing and service providers, as well as for people with developmental disabilities themselves.

Intern Matthew Sakamoto sweeps up at the Hokulani timeshare.
Since working with Outrigger Hotels, Sakamoto’s new post-graduation plan is to get a job rather than enroll in a day program at a health center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In one example, a young woman on Oahu with cerebral palsy who disliked the group home where she had been living was able to move into a new setting more suited to her liking. Then she interviewed and hired her own support staff. She also enrolled in surf lessons after showing interest in learning to ride waves.

Prior to the launch of Outrigger’s new internship program, Sakamoto had planned to spend his post-high school years in a day program at a health center. His new goal is to get a job.

“In the past, so many of the young people coming out of school just had one disposition, which is they ended up in an adult day health program and got stuck there for the rest of their lives,” Brogan said. “For someone like Matthew, this opens up the whole world to him.”

In addition to career opportunities, the final rule addresses day-to-day living issues small and large. For example, people with developmental disabilities should be able to have a key to their home. They should be able to choose their own meal times and roommates. They should be able to pursue friendships and romantic partnerships.

“It’s a game-changer,” Brogan said. “We are going to monitor the group homes and foster homes to make sure they’re not saying, ‘OK, everybody line up — it’s pill time,’ or ‘Meals are served a 5 p.m., you don’t have a choice.’ That’s the institutional experience and a lot of times it can feel like jail.”

So far, Hawaii has improved its policies and standards and added services to help people with developmental disabilities navigate their interests in the community and connect with employment supports so that they can work in an integrated setting rather than a sheltered workshop.

The state now mandates planning that encourages participants to examine their life, set a vision for the future and develop incremental steps to achieve that vision.

Busting Out Of The ‘Disability Box’

The federal rule has also prompted the state to implement policies that outlaw the practice of physically restraining program participants with straps or by locking them in a room — something that had not previously been codified in the division’s standards and procedures, Brogan said.

“This final rule is a way of redefining the box that these people have been put into — it’s a disability box and in that box, due to stigma and other things, these people have not been given a lot of choice,” Brogan said. “They have been trained to be compliant, to follow the next person, to follow what their family wants. We want the person to be safe and supervised when it’s merited, but not everybody needs to be supervised all the time.”

At Outrigger, the chance to work with Roosevelt students in coordination with Project Search, a national employment preparation program for young people with serious developmental disabilities, allows the business to tap into a new potential market for recruiting new workers in a state with record-low unemployment.

Systematic tasks are ideal for the interns, at least at first. These tasks include greeting hotel guests, delivering luggage, hanging wall art, slicing fruit, collecting pool towels, bussing tables and making beds. As the interns gain confidence and new skills, they gradually take on less repetitive tasks and work with greater independence.

Sakamoto has so far excelled in the maintenance department, where he wields a two-way radio while troubleshooting crooked wall hangings, clogged sink drains and dusty air vents.

“He’s a lovable character, just the way he interacts with people,” said Mitch Yokoyama, assistant general manager of Outrigger’s Hokulani Waikiki By Hilton Grand Vacations Club. “He’s very open and always engaging. After this program, we’re all going to miss having him around here.”

In June, when the program ends its inaugural year, Sakamoto’s parents hope the hotel chain — or another Waikiki hospitality group — will offer him a job.

Outrigger managers say it’s a possibility. 

“He really flourishes in an environment like this — nurturing, full of aloha,” said Guy Sakamoto, Matthew Sakamoto’s father. “He’s never had an experience like this and it’s something we always wanted for him.”

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