DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — A federal judge ruled in favor of a Huber Heights family who claimed a state agency denied their son support for his autism spectrum disorder.
Hunter Garrett, a Wayne High School graduate, has an eye for design. His passion for creating propelled him to attend Western Kentucky University; however, Hunter has autism and needed some extra help navigating campus life.
He reached out to Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) for support. OOD is a state agency that provides resources for people living with disabilities, including vocational rehabilitation services to help people prepare for employment.
“They talked with him to figure out an employment goal. What kind of a job would you like to have? What steps do you need to take to meet the requirements to have a job like that? So, they had it in his plan to attend college a four-year college,” Hunter’s mom, Kelly, explained.
The agency provided him supplies and a computer, but it denied him money for a program that would help him with college life. It is called the Kelly Autism Program (KAP) at WKU. It helps students with autism learn crucial life and employment skills.
“KAP really did help me get through college, especially from the highs and lows. Without it, I don’t think I would have succeeded the way I did,” Hunter said.
The program costs $5,000 per semester. OOD claimed they could not help with the cost because it did not support those types of programs. Hunter’s family kept pressing the agency to clarify its response, but they were continuously denied.
“Nobody could explain why there couldn’t be an exception to their policy,” Kelly said.
The Garretts believed KAP was important for Hunter’s success, so they turned to Disability Rights Ohio.
Kevin Truitt is the Legal Advocacy Director for DRO. Under Title 1 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, states are granted funding to provide people with disabilities with vocational rehabilitation.
According to court documents in this case, OOD is the designated state agency in Ohio that is responsible for vocational rehabilitation and receives 78.7 percent of its funding for VR services through federal grants. One of the requirements under the Rehabilitation Act is an individualized plan of employment (IPE). This plan includes ways a person with disabilities can achieve employment and specific services being used. Truitt said by OOD refusing to provide support for Hunter in the KAP program, the agency violated this federal law.
“The agency determined they have this blanket policy, that they’re just not going to support these types of programs through colleges and universities. And that was a very clear violation of federal law,” Truitt explained.
After more than four years of fighting for Hunter’s rights, a federal judge ruled in his favor. The judge ordered OOD to reimburse Hunter for the money he paid to be part of KAP. Truitt said this sets a precedent for future cases because it requires OOD to look at each person on a case-by-case basis.
“Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities cannot just have a blanket policy, and say ‘we don’t fund these types of programs through colleges or universities.’ They have to do an individualized assessment that asks, what is the person’s vocational goal? What are their disability needs, and what kind of services and support does the person need in light of that vocational goal and those disability needs?” Truitt said.
Hunter graduated from WKU back in May and is now thriving. He is working as a graphic designer at HVAC Direct in Troy. He hopes this case will open more doors for other people living with disabilities.
“It does feel good, especially considering the precedent this sets for people like me or with similar or differing disabilities. It’s a comforting thought,” Hunter said.
Despite this challenge with OOD, his parents are still appreciative of all the help OOD provided Hunter along the way. They hope this shines a light on the resources that are available for other young Ohioans with disabilities.
“I’d like more parents to know there’s resource out there. The OOD is the Agency for Vocational Rehabilitation for adults in the state of Ohio, and there’s a lot that they can do to help individuals be more independent and more productive,” Kelly said.
2 News reached out to OOD for comment and to see if any policy changes have been made yet. A spokesperson for the agency said they do not comment on individual cases, and they continually review their policies to improve services for individuals with disabilities.
If you feel like your rights have been violated or if you have any questions about your rights, you can find out more about DRO here.