Spotlight on a Disability Resource Office

University of Hawaii Manoa KOKUA Program Celebrates 50 Years

The KOKUA Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa prides itself as being “the place of growing.” Over the past 50 years the KOKUA Program has definitely grown. At its inception in September 1966, Former Director Grace Merritt welcomed 15 students into the new Program. Today, the KOKUA Program serves upwards of 800 students and has a full-time staff of nine. Current Director Ann Ito said Merritt “brought dignity and equity to the Program long before any civil rights notion was in the air. Under her leadership, the Program truly embraced the Aloha spirit, ‘do the right thing.’” 

The KOKUA Program was born out of a need for consistent support for students with disabilities. Prior to the Program, student honor societies offered tutoring services to students with disabilities. However, the ever-changing makeup of the societies made consistency an issue. A group of students approached the administration and expressed the need for services for students with disabilities. The administration agreed.

In the beginning, the Program primarily served wheelchair-users and students with visual impairments. It also included a tutoring service free of charge for all freshman and sophomores at the University. The KOKUA Program reached out to the campus community and partnered with vocational rehabilitation, veterans, and athletics groups to get the word out. “I can’t applaud Mrs. Merritt and her students enough for their clear vision [in creating] a place for opportunity,” Ito said.

The growth continued. In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act allowed the Program to further develop and define itself. In 1996, the KOKUA Program celebrated thirty years and was so large it was moved to a new office in the Student Services Building. Due to a lack of funding, tutoring services were discontinued and disability services became the KOKUA Program’s primary focus.

Director Ann Ito has been with the Program since its beginning and has served many roles. She began as a graduate student working under Former Director Grace Merritt and was hired full-time after graduating in 1969. She worked with transcription and counseling, and took over as Director when Merritt retired in 1982. Former AHEAD Executive Director Janie Jarrow said, “Ann is one of those ‘unsung heroes’ and pioneers in our field. She has done more good, for more students, for a longer time than anyone else I know. She has done it through her calm, outwardly mild demeanor, covering a fierce determination to see things done right. She is my idol.”