Starting Thursday, Oahu’s beaches, parks and hiking trails will reopen under a strict one-person rule: You can only enjoy these outdoor spaces by yourself.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said his policy is designed to make it easy for Honolulu police to enforce rules against gatherings.

However, the order immediately raised serious equity concerns among disability rights advocates. They worried that people who rely on caregivers, including those with physical and mental disabilities and kupuna, would be effectively banned from beaches, parks and trails.

Elderly Wheelchair senior citizens. 6 mar 2017
People who rely on a caregiver will be allowed “reasonable modifications” to the mayor’s order, the city said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Their concerns seemed to be affirmed on Tuesday when the mayor’s communications director Alexander Zannes said “there are no exemptions to the Order allowing individuals to engage in lawful activity by oneself in City and State parks, beaches, and trails.” 

That stance conflicts with the U.S. Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in public accommodations, said Kirby Shaw, executive director of Hawaii’s Disability and Communication Access Board.

“The federal law doesn’t go away,” he said. “I would hate to see lawsuits filed based on this.”

However, on Wednesday, the city backtracked and released a statement from the Office of Corporation Counsel.

“The City fully intends and has continued to comply with all applicable state and federal laws related to individuals with disabilities, including allowing reasonable modifications that may include accommodating the need to be accompanied by a caregiver when a person with a disability accesses public spaces,” the office stated.

No further details were provided.

Diane Haar, the founder of Hawaii Disability Legal Services, said the city’s statement sounds noncommittal. 

“There is no ‘may,’” she said. “They have to provide reasonable accommodations or they get sued.”

Honolulu should have made clear in the mayor’s order itself that disabled people would be allowed to visit open spaces with their caregivers, Haar said. Without clear communication, Haar said people might stay home because they think they’re not allowed to go out, which would be a shame.

“They’re facing an especially heavy burden at this time,” she said. 

Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said the ADA is clear and he is pleased that the city’s lawyers acknowledged it. He added that the city should ensure police officers know how to handle situations in which a caregiver is assisting someone.

“Hopefully the word gets out so that people don’t get a ticket or get hassled and have to fight it after the fact,” he said.

Brandi Higa, a city information officer, directed questions about enforcement to the Honolulu Police Department whose spokeswoman, Michelle Yu, emailed a statement.

“Our officers assist and interact with individuals with disabilities on a daily basis in a variety of settings,” she said. “They are familiar with the laws relating to reasonable accommodation.”

Allison Wallis, a disabled mother and disability rights activist, said she was really looking forward to parks reopening. Now, the Haleiwa resident, who relies on her husband to help her navigate her wheelchair around treacherous walkways, worries she and others will face unfair scrutiny.

“There are people who have invisible disabilities, mental health disabilities, intellectual disabilities. They should not have to feel obliged to disclose to a police officer, a busybody or anybody else that this is what I have going on with me. I am disabled in this way, and this is why I need this accommodation,” she said. “It’s none of their business.”

Civil Beat asked the mayor’s office if anyone advises Caldwell about disability rights matters or equity issues in general. His communications staff did not respond.

“They literally do not think of us,” Wallis said.

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