The Four-Legged Friend
Fayetteville, Georgia (34)
On a normal Saturday morning, 20-year-old Whitney Guest would prefer to sleep in until 10 a.m. On this Saturday, though, she’s up and at ‘em much earlier than usual. She’s gone back to visit the Haven Hills Equestrian Center in Fairburn, Georgia. After a three-year period away, Whitney is preparing to return for equine therapy.
Whitney has an intellectual disability, anxiety and epilepsy. The causes of Whitney’s disabilities are unclear, but some possible reasons include the fact that there were two episodes just after she was born where she quit breathing and her glucose was quite low. Her mom, Melissa, says that she noticed Whitney was missing a number of the developmental markers her older sister had reached when she was a toddler. Whitney had her first seizure when she was five-years-old. When the seizure happened, Melissa told the neurologist about Whitney’s developmental delays, and they were referred to a neuropsychologist at CHOA. Still, until Whitney was formally diagnosed in the third grade, they did not understand the nature and extent of Whitney’s developmental disabilities. Until that point, she had just been diagnosed with a low IQ and processing disorder. “Up to then, it never occurred to me that she would fall into that category,” Melissa says. (Story continues below after slideshow.)
Starting resource classes (direct, specialized education where the student is pulled out of the primary classroom for certain classes) helped Whitney get on target with her learning, “but she was very frustrated with not being able to do her regular classroom work,” says Melissa. When she was in the fourth grade, they moved her to a school that had inclusive classrooms, educational settings where students of lots of different abilities are kept together.
Although technically graduated from Sandy Creek High School, Whitney is still part of Fayette County’s community-based instruction (CBI) program and will be until she’s 22. While she was still in the high school’s CBI program, one of their job sites was at a kennel two days per week, which suited Whitney and her consummate love of animals. They also went to a golf course and helped to clean golf carts. Now that she’s graduated, she’s in a program called REACH, which stands for Reaching Educational and Career Heights.
Whitney does not have a Medicaid waiver and has not yet made an application. Until recently, Melissa says they did not understand that Whitney was eligible for those kinds of resources. Whitney is starting to reach that critical, transitional period in her life where people with developmental disabilities and their families often find themselves unsure about what to do next. As their peers and siblings leave for college, they start to think about living on their own, but viable, affordable options are not always easy to find.
If given a chance to speak to their elected representatives, Whitney says that she’s frustrated by the lack of independence that comes with her disability. She wants to convey that people like her have the same dreams and wishes for opportunity that others have. Whitney’s family feels unprepared by this coming transition time as she cycles out of the school system; no one told them about the resources available. Melissa agrees, “I don’t feel like I was educated enough to be honest. There needs to be a “Special Needs Parents 101” for us to learn about what we need and should be applying for.”
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Lynsey Weatherspoon