Andrew Furey’s cheeks are red.
He has just rushed through breakfast, barely noticing those at the table with him. Now, outside his dining hall, he speaks carefully into his cell phone.
Andrew asks the person on the other end of the line where he should wait for the Stingerette, the van service that will take him to calculus, his first college class.
Andrew is one of the RATS, or Recently-Acquired Tech Students, a nickname given to freshmen at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The title comes with a bright yellow hat freshmen traditionally wear the first day of class, one that Andrew almost had to wait until January to wear.
On the phone, Andrew’s voice falters. Something isn’t right. No one was planning to pick him up.
“I gave, I gave her a schedule already. Last week, I gave her my schedule,” he explains into the phone.
As an 18-year-old with muscular dystrophy, much of Andrew’s life depends upon other people and systems — two things that are not always dependable or easy to understand.
Andrew was the salutatorian of his graduating class. He left East Hall High School three months ago with a grade-point average above 4.0 and a scholarship.
By his own admission, getting an acceptance letter from Georgia Tech was the easy part. Actually being able to live on his own at the university in downtown Atlanta was a much more difficult accomplishment.
Originally diagnosed with Becker’s muscular dystrophy at the age of 3, what started as a limp now limits nearly all of Andrew’s mobility, and could be another more serious form of the disease known as Duchennne.
As his father, Eric Furey, described Andrew’s situation, “He needs somebody to get him up in the morning, help feed him, help dress him, (and) in the afternoon, feed him lunch ... (and in the) evening again, he needs some help bathing and using the restroom.”
Getting that kind of assistance away from home is almost impossible for an average family to afford on its own, and one of the biggest barriers between intelligent people with physical disabilities and a quality, post-secondary education, said Denise Johnson Marshall, Georgia Tech’s assistant dean of students and director of Disability Services.
“I think (the resources available to students with disabilities) need to be equal to the brilliant students that are coming out and coming to college,” Johnson Marshall said. “And right now, they’re not.”
The resources that do exist can be hard to access, Johnson Marshall said — especially in Georgia.
The annual State of the States in Developmental Disabilities report traditionally ranks Georgia in the bottom third of the nation when it comes to providing money for programs that keep people like Andrew out of nursing homes and in the community, said Eric Jacobson, the executive director for Georgia’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.
While federal and state laws make provisions for students in the K-12 school system, there is no mandate requiring services that allow adults with disabilities to live independently in the community after the age of 22, said Scott Crain, the parent mentor for the Hall County school system’s special education program.
“It’s really a sad situation, and we are not a poor state,” Crain said. “If you put us up against all the other 50 states, we rank in the top 20 as far as per capita income, but yet, we are very near the bottom as to how we take care of our people who simply cannot take care of themselves.”
And though in recent years Georgia has improved its funding for disability services, more than 6,000 Georgia residents who are eligible for state-funded disability services are still on a waiting list because of a lack of funding, Jacobson said.
Andrew expected that acquiring the money he would need to live independently would be a challenge, though he had been coached on how to maneuver the system before he left high school.
“My summer will be full of waiting around, hoping to get into school during the fall semester, but also fear of having to wait until the spring,” Andrew wrote in an e-mail in June. “The whole process has been like wading through a swamp with thick mud underfoot and murky water full of alligators and deadly snakes just waiting to take a bite, while trying to get out before the thunderstorm comes.”
Andrew’s entire college career hinged on acceptance into the Service Options Utilizing Resources in Community Environments waiver program.
The SOURCE waiver program usually pays for approximately $2,000 worth of in-home care each month, said Dianne Currans, the health programs manager at Legacy Link. The program would pay for a caregiver that would essentially help Andrew get ready for school each morning, eat his meals and go to bed at night.
But to gain acceptance into that program, Andrew had to join the relatively small percentage of young adults in the country who are signed up for Supplemental Security Income, a Social Security benefit program designed for people older than 65 and others with disabilities.
He had to wait months to get approved for SSI.
The acceptance letter came three weeks after the deadline to sign up for Georgia Tech’s student housing, and after Andrew had resigned himself to the fact that he would not be able to attend the college until January.
When Andrew’s mother, Samantha, was able to wrangle him a spot in Georgia Tech’s dormitories, he was still unsure that his SOURCE waiver would provide him a caregiver by the time school started.
That question was not answered until Andrew’s caregiver showed up for his first shift a little more than 12 hours before Andrew’s first class.
And even on the morning of Aug. 17, while Andrew waits outside Georgia Tech’s Woodruff Dining Hall 20 minutes before his first college class, there is still uncertainty that he will make it there.
He does not raise his voice when the person on the other end of the phone tells him that the Stingerette had not planned to pick him up this morning.
“Furey — it’s F-U-R-E-Y. Yeah, it’s Andrew ...” he says into the phone.
Something is rearranged, a schedule shifted. A white wheelchair-accessible van pulls up to the curb.
Andrew will make it to calculus after all.