Have ramp, will travel.
That's the motto Karen Alohilani Hue Sing hopes other fellow "wheelers" can live by with the help of her newly launched business, Accessible Maui.
The 51-year-old Maui resident is the Hawaii distributor for EZ-Access ramps, a Washington state manufacturer of portable aluminum ramps that can be placed over steps to grant on-demand wheelchair access.
Karen Hue Sing drives her wheelchair up a portable aluminum ramp in Waiehu on Friday. Hue Sing has started a company, Accessible Maui, to sell the ramps on the island to help with accessibility for those in wheelchairs. She said her goal is to help Maui residents gain safe and ready access to their homes and businesses.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Hue Sing said her business arose from her own needs. A car accident in 1982 left her a quadriplegic at the age of 20.
"I've been using a wheelchair for almost 31 years, and with things like the holidays coming up, I'll be invited to a party and I'll have to call ahead and ask what the entrance is like, how many steps there are," she said. "It can really put a damper on things if people have to come out and search for a ply board to make a ramp, or men will have to try to carry me. My chair probably weighs at least 300 pounds with me on it."
Hue Sing said she had been toying with business ideas for more than a year as part of a business development class put on by the University of Hawaii Center on Disability Studies and the state's Vocational Rehabilitation program within the Department of Human Services.
"It came down to something I've been dealing with all my life - accessibility," she said. "It was out of necessity, really, that I decided to incorporate this into my business. The ramps are the main focus now to start. Eventually, I want to arrange tours for residents and visitors."
The ramps come in lengths that start at 2 feet and go up to 8 feet, with prices ranging from about $100 to $1,000.
"Because they're portable and aluminum, it's a quick and easy (alternative) to having to hire a carpenter. It meets ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements," she said. "Hopefully, this might be something that families or friends of those with wheelchairs can invest in, or for some of my wheeler friends, they could purchase one to take around with them."
She hopes her ramps can help people enjoy being a part of their communities.
"For me, my joy is to provide access for many so they can be a part of their families and communities and not feel like they have to stay at home, or like they're imposing when they ask about accessibility," she said. "You want to be independent and get in and out without it being a big production."
Hue Sing also wants to approach Maui businesses, including restaurants and bars where she's already observed areas that can be challenging for wheelchairs.
One example is the T. Komoda Store and Bakery in Makawao.
Hue Sing organized a launch event at the bakery for her line of ramps at November's Makawao Town Third Friday event. She invited friends in her Maui Wheelers support group.
"It was such a wonderful feeling of finally being able to choose our own pastries and not having to wait outside," Hue Sing said. "My friends were really thrilled, and I was overjoyed. I hadn't had the experience of getting into the store since before my accident."
She said she's been talking with owner Alan Komoda about designing a custom ramp for the historic store.
Beyond helping others gain independence, Hue Sing said the launch of her business has been personally fulfilling as well.
"It's really important for me to finally get into self-employment for my children and my family," she said. "I require a nurse to help me, but once I get that all taken care of and I'm on my chair, I'm free to get about and be a part of my community."
For more information, visit accessiblemaui.com.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.