DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Wally Soares, owner of Island Skill Gathering, showed tools yesterday to help disabled people function in everyday life. Soares said this large computer monitor is great to use as a teaching tool because many people can gather around it. Posing next to the monitor were Jackson Hayden, left, Soares and Joann "J.R." Rodrigues.
Couple empowers disabled with tech
Their business paves the way for those wanting to succeed
WALLY SOARES, a quadriplegic, says technology "levels the playing field" for him and others with disabilities.
With the power of the wheelchair and computer, he said, "I can compete on the same level" as anyone else. "It's only up to my attitude and enthusiasm."
Enthusiasm is something Soares has in abundance.
His disability inspired him and his wife, Valerie, to establish a business called Island Skill Gathering. They operate it at their home, 3472 Kanaina Ave. in Kapahulu, providing technology and devices for people with vision, hearing, motor, speech and other disabilities.
"I tell folks, 'If you're going to be a person with a disability, this is the time,'" he said in an interview.
Soares, 47, did not have the advantages of technology when a disorder of his spinal column struck him as a teenager.
"I was a healthy kid, but I got all skinny at age 16 or 17," he said. Doctors initially thought it was muscular dystrophy, but it was "a cyst in the whole spinal column."
His father owned General Printing Co., and he wanted to be a writer, he said. "But that all fell by the wayside. I was a sophomore at Kaiser (High School). I was a mess."
He said he had an "influential tutor" who took him to the theater and other places, encouraging him to go to college. Still, he was depressed for about three years, he said.
Then, he began to realize he was "blessed with a gift" allowing him to meet and touch many people, he said.
He struggled intellectually and physically through the University of Hawaii, he said, noting there was no place to go for technology to help with school.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English, he became coordinator of services at the Hawaii Center for Independent Living. There he met Valerie, another staff member and American sign language interpreter. "We were all giddy about each other," he said.
They started their own business in 1989 out of a small two-bedroom apartment, calling it Island Skill Gathering because "these people (clients) are skill gathering," Soares said.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
This is a portable video magnifier placed over a phone book. This actual image shows Island Skill Gathering's listing in the phone book.
They bought their home 12 years ago, using it both for their business and family quarters. The couple has a 5-year-old daughter, Iwalani Marie.
"We put in decking and a ramp," Soares said. "We made it completely accessible for me. There is lots of room for clients and staff."
He said about 60 percent of his clients are referred under a contract with the state Vocational Rehabilitation Division. He and his subcontractors assess a client's needs, purchase and deliver devices needed, and provide training on their use.
Art Cabanilla, blind since age 8 because of a brain tumor, does consulting work for Soares and helps with assessments and training of different products.
Cabanilla recently acquired what he calls one of the "latest, greatest devices" for the blind, called "BrailleNote."
He said it will be one of the new things featured at the free Tools for Life Expo tomorrow and Saturday at the Hawai'i Convention Center. More than 100 exhibitors will show off the latest devices and services to help people with different disabilities.
Cabanilla, 37, said "BrailleNote" is great for recording lectures or meetings and for tracking information in Braille or voice. It is similar to a laptop computer but smaller, with Braille and audio capabilities.
Soares said his first product was the TTY (text telephone), which he had to order because there was no place to buy it here. But the big thing now for deaf people is the video phone, allowing American Sign Language users to see who they are talking to, he said. "The text telephone days are numbered."
Wheelchairs also have changed dramatically, he said, noting he probably had one of the first electric wheelchairs on the island 30 years ago. "It kept breaking down."