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Disabled Asians Aren't Using Public Services : Survey: 83% of adults in the county remain sheltered with their families because of cultural barriers, a study finds. Community leaders say more group homes are needed, especially for Chinese and Japanese Americans.

January 09, 1994|IRIS YOKOI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When her son was born underweight, with facial deformities and one shrunken hand, Gloria Saito was prepared.

Saito, a Temple City resident, had pursued a special-education teaching credential before her pregnancy and was armed with an above-average knowledge of disabilities and public services for disabled individuals.

She registered her son, now 7, with the state Department of Developmental Services, availing him to services provided by the state's system of regional centers. The centers help physically and mentally disabled individuals and their families with many tasks, from finding free transportation services and housing to jobs and counseling.

"Usually, parents don't know where to go or what to ask," Saito, 37, said. "I was fortunate because I was educated before I had my son."

A recent study of developmentally disabled Asian adults in Los Angeles County confirmed that Saito is a rarity in the Asian American community because she sought public assistance.

Conducted by the Little Tokyo Service Center and Asian Rehabilitation Services, two nonprofit agencies in the Downtown area, the study found that 83% of disabled Asian American adults in the county live at home, sheltered by their families, and have not taken advantage of the services available from the state regional centers.

The reasons, experts say, are easy to pinpoint: cultural and language barriers and ignorance of the services.

The study, which surveyed about 70 families, also concluded that more group homes targeting Asian Americans are needed to provide developmentally disabled Asian adults with a transition between life with their families and living on their own.

In a group home, several adults live together under the 24-hour supervision of one or two on-site caretakers or house managers. Although there are a few group homes catering to Filipinos and Koreans, there are none for Japanese and Chinese in Los Angeles County, local experts said.

In response to the study, the Little Tokyo Service Center plans to build a group home for eight residents of Japanese and Chinese descent in Monterey Park, a city with a large Asian American population. The agency has secured an initial $370,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project, and is now scouting for a site and an architect to design the house especially for the disabled.

With the group home project, "we're going to take care of our own disabled people, but we're not going to hide them in our homes anymore," said Alan Woo, executive director of Asian Pacific Community Service, a nonprofit agency for the disabled. Before taking the reins of the Orange County-based agency in August, Woo helped administer the study as executive director of Asian Rehabilitation Services, which provides vocational training to the disabled.

The Little Tokyo Service Center also hopes to reserve some apartments in its proposed Casa Heiwa low-rent housing project in Little Tokyo as "independent living" units for disabled Asian American adults.

State statistics from regional centers for the developmentally disabled show that there were 4,619 clients who listed their ethnicity as Asian last year, compared with 106,359 total clients, according to Frances Jacobs, research director at the Eastern Los Angeles regional center.

The low number of Asian clients stems from the fact that many Asian American parents aren't aware of the services available or are stymied by language barriers, according to Saito and Woo. Cultural habits and traditions are also important factors.

Strong familial bonds, the basis of many Asian cultures, wrap even tighter around a disabled family member, experts said. Already fueled by the belief that children are a parent's lifelong responsibility, parents become extra-protective of their disabled offspring and distrusting of outside help.

"Many Asian families don't want to let their kids go," Saito said. "In Japan, the parents' attitude is that the family should take care of children through their entire life."

A certain amount of shame is also involved, with some parents simply embarrassed to air in public what they see as an internal family situation, said Saito, who heads a support group in Little Tokyo for Japanese parents of disabled children. Some parents even pull away from their friends, feeling that "normal" people can't relate to their lives, Saito said.

Parents' fears can be legitimate. Saito said she knew of one disabled man who moved into an apartment to live on his own. Although very capable of cooking, cleaning, balancing his checkbook and handling other basic skills of independent living, he had no friends and lacked community support, Saito said. Lonely and out of touch with the surrounding community, he returned to live with his family, Saito said.

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