Pono goes after PONY Baseball

Kaua’i’s Pono Tokioka has persevered to the all-star level of PONY Baseball and his family made another step for him to continue to reach for his dreams of playing in the big leagues.

Jimmy and Beth Tokioka, parents of 10-year-old Pono, who was denied access to his sign language interpreter during a statewide baseball tournament, filed a complaint yesterday with the United States Department of Justice against PONY Baseball/Softball, Inc. of Washington, Pennsylvania.

Pono, who is profoundly deaf, traveled with his Lihu’e Baseball League teammates to Hilo on the Big Island for the PONY State regional tournament in July.

PONY officials for the State of Hawai’i refused to let Pono’s father, Jimmy, who acts as his interpreter during practices and games on Kaua’i, to be inside the dugout during the Regional playoff games, citing a PONY rule that only allows three coaches in the dugout during tournament games.

“The point is that Pono’s dad was not a coach in this situation — he was an interpreter.

“There’s a big difference,” stated Pono’s mom, Beth Tokioka. “We never had a problem with Pono having an interpreter on Kaua’i. Denying him access to his interpreter at the State tournament was a violation of our son’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The Tokiokas offered several options to PONY officials before the tournament, including allowing Pono’s mother to interpret for him or for PONY to provide it’s own interpreter for the boy. Both requests were denied.

Jimmy was finally allowed to sit in a roped off area outside of the dugout, however, the distance from the coach and the players in the dugout made communication between interpreter, coach and player ineffective.

PONY officials defended the action during the tournament and afterward, insisting that, based on PONY rules as currently written, one of the three Lihu’e coaches should also have also been tasked to be Pono’s interpreter.

The Tokioka’s sought a rule change through the organization’s national Rules Committee in October, however, the request was denied. “All we want is for PONY to acknowledge, clearly and without question, that kids with disabilities will be accepted and will have access to accommodations to which they are legally entitled,” stated Jimmy.

“Unless PONY acknowledges that an interpreter is not a coach, then deaf children all over the nation can be denied access to communication — and we’re not going to let this happen again to Pono or any other child.”

The Tokioka’s complaint was filed this week by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Law Center. “We’re grateful that NAD has agreed to represent us in this matter, because it touches all deaf children — in fact it touches all people with disabilities who continue to suffer discrimination in spite of the ADA,” said Beth.

Since the incident gained statewide and national attention a little over a month ago, the Tokiokas have been inundated by phone calls, letters, and e-mails in support of their cause.

“Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, local government officials, state and national advocacy organizations, and deaf people from all over the world have contacted us,” said Jimmy. “Even Cal Ripken, Jr. took the time to write Pono a letter and encourage him to always try his best. We were blown away.”

As a result of the story, two disability rights advocacy organizations in Hawai’i have filed complaints against the County of Hawai’i, asking it to ban PONY from using county fields unless it agrees to follow the ADA. The Tokiokas have discussed the situation with officials from all four counties. On Friday, December 2, councilman Donovan Delacruz submitted a resolution stating that sports leagues in the City and County of Honolulu must adhere to the ADA when using public facilities — including allowing players access to sign language interpreters. Councilmembers from the other three Counties are expected to follow suit. On Saturday, December 3, the National Association of Counties passed a resolution supporting the Dela Cruz resolution, and encouraging all of its 2026 members nationwide to consider adopting similar measures.

“The amazing thing for us is that every one except PONY seems to get it. Usually, with the ADA, it’s the local buy-in that’s the hardest to get. PONY’s rulebook clearly states that it will not discriminate against kids with disabilities, and yet, they allow this to happen and actually defend it. That a national organization could be so ignorant of the law is astonishing to us,” said Beth.

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