COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hunter Garrett has always had a knack for art, so much so Garrett knew he would pursue a career in art.
“I mean, I had an idea of working for Pixar anyway, at least at some point,” said Hunter Garrett. “Eventually I found a way or at least found a way into it and graphic design just seemed to be that.”
His passion for design grew over time and when it came time to explore college options, he had to be strategic. Garrett has Autism Spectrum Disorder and needed a university and program that was going to support him.
“My dad at one point found WKU, which actually had this neat program, which would be fitting for somebody like me,” said Garrett.
Hunter Garrett applied to Western Kentucky University and its Kelly Autism Program. He got accepted to both programs, but KAP cost an additional $5,000 per semester. Garrett and his family reached out to his case workers at Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, to receive benefits for the program.
“The initial counselor went to his supervisor, the supervisor said no,” said Nolan Garrett, Hunter’s father. “Basically, they came out and said, we don't support those kinds of programs, without doing any research or anything.”
Nolan Garrett didn’t take no for an answer. He reached out to Disability Rights Ohio to inquire about their options. They ended up taking the case to litigation on the basis that the KAP program was a necessity for Hunter’s success and that each client should be looked at on an individual basis.
“I don't even think I want to realize what might have happened if I didn't go with them,” said Hunter Garrett.
While Hunter was navigating 4-5 classes a week, the KAP program provided tutors, soft communication skills, and mental health counseling. Hunter had to gather and send paperwork throughout his entire college career for the litigation. After more than four years, a federal judge found substantial evidence that OOD’s refusal to pay for the program was not based on Hunter's needs to reach his job goals.
“They had basically a blanket policy that they weren't going to support this college program for a person with a disability and that very clearly in our eyes and the federal court agreed with us violates federal law, that rehabilitation act, which basically says the state has to make individualized decisions,” said Kevin Truitt with Disability Rights Ohio. “They can't just have a blanket policy that they're not going to support these types of programs.”
The case was a cloud over Hunter's college career. OOD was ordered to reimburse Hunter for paying money out of his own pocket for the KAP program, but his mom, Kelly, said that it was never about the money and only about accessibility for all.
“We are hopeful that this will open the door for other young adults are receiving services through OOD that maybe they could go away to college and have a support program,” said Kelly Garrett.
Spectrum News reached out to Opportunities for Ohioans with Disability, and a spokesperson with the organization said it does not comment on specific cases and is continuing to work to improve its services. Hunter Garrett is still a client with OOD.
After he graduated from WKU, the organization helped him through the job search process. He now works as a production designer for hvacdirect.com.