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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 1:23 p.m., Thursday, August 17, 2006

Kaua'i case opens PONY baseball for deaf children

By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The PONY baseball leagues, where Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez once honed their skills, will allow deaf children to use sign language interpreters in games under an agreement with the Justice Department.

The Justice Department's civil rights division announced an agreement tody under which deaf, hard-of-hearing and other disabled kids among the 450,000 children who play in PONY's boys and girls baseball and softball leagues will get new assistance to help them participate fully.

There are 3,500 baseball and fast- and slow-pitch softball leagues organized around the nation by nonprofit PONY Baseball Inc., headquartered in Washington, Pa. The leagues are divided into two-year age brackets to allow boys aged 5 to 18 and girls from 8 to 18 to compete with players of similar ages and of their own sex.

The case was brought after Justin "Pono" Tokioka, a deaf youth, was not allowed to have his father, James, inside the dugout to give him sign language signals during the PONY state regional tournament playoff games in Hilo, Hawaii, in July 2005. Justin was then 10 and played in a Mustang league for 9 and 10-year-olds, and his father had acted as his interpreter in practices and in games on the island of Kauai, where the family lives in Lihue.

PONY officials cited a rule that only three coaches could be in the dugout during tournament games. James and Beth Tokioka filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of their son, but the settlement they won provides nationwide relief for disabled PONY participants.

"Words can't express how thankful we are that the settlement was favorable not only to Pono, but to thousands of children with disabilities around the country who want to participate equally," said Beth Tokioka. "It's amazing that almost two decades later, the Americans with Disabilities Act is still so poorly understood."

James Tokioka added, "All we wanted was for him to have a good experience and to know that he helped his team by participating fully in the tournament. Hopefully, this will make it easier for other kids and their parents to just enjoy the thrill of playing at that level."

Justin still plays, now in the Bronco level for 11- and 12-year-olds. "Now he doesn't have to worry about any of this again, which is great," Beth Tokioka said.

More than 375 major league baseball players have had experience in PONY leagues, the organization says.

The Justice Department said PONY agreed:

— Not only to allow but also to provide sign language interpreters for deaf or hard-of-hearing players during games.

— To modify its rules and practices to allow disabled children an equal opportunity to participate.

— To train its board of directors in the act's requirements and name an ADA coordinator to ensure that PONY leagues provide reasonable modifications and auxiliary aids for disabled players.

— To pay Justin Tokioka $30,000 in damages.

"Playing baseball is a summertime joy for kids in this country," said Wan J. Kim, assistant attorney general in charge of Justice's civil rights division. "I am pleased that today's agreement opens up PONY's baseball and softball leagues for children with disabilities."