Family’s Commitment Paves Way to Assure Students with Disabilities Have More Time to Complete College, Keep Scholarships
Inspired by Shepherd Center alum Grace Byrne, Georgia Governor signs bill allowing for waivers of scholarship time limits for individuals with disabilities.
For Grace Byrne, the sky was the limit. An honors student and accomplished soccer, cross country and tennis player, she was set to earn the state’s esteemed Zell Miller Scholarship, a program intended to keep the best and brightest students in Georgia and pay full tuition at schools in the University System of Georgia, to attend the University of Georgia and was already dual-enrolled at UGA while completing her senior year at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia, in 2013.
But one fateful day that January, Grace was struck by a car while walking across the street with a friend. Grace, 17 at the time, sustained a life-threatening brain injury. After spending three weeks in a coma, she was transferred to Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program. For six months, Grace took part in a rigorous therapy regimen with a multidisciplinary team of experts, some of whom even traveled to Athens to see her graduate from high school.
Through it all, Grace’s drive and dedication to her education have never slowed. Still, the residual memory and vision impairments, along with debilitating sleep deprivation, have understandably made it challenging for her to manage a full course load. Still, she’s never given up, chipping away each year despite the challenges before her.
“It’s a goal, and it’s kept her engaged, but the brain injury makes it much harder for her to process and retain information. Even one class wipes her out,” explains Grace’s dad, Christopher Byrne.
Much to his surprise, Chris learned last August while paying a tuition bill that Grace had lost her scholarship because it had taken her more than seven years from her high school graduation date to complete her college education, which exceeded the statutory time limit to complete her college degree.
“Here’s a student who is doing everything right; she was pulling a 3.8 GPA and taking as many classes as she could physically manage given her condition, in addition to ongoing and intensive treatments and therapies,” he explains. “And this doesn’t just apply to Grace, there are other kids who’ve had accidents or who have cancer and need ongoing treatment. The time limit is essentially a punitive tax on students with disabilities.”
Motivated by the apparent injustice, Chris posted about it on Facebook and reached out to Georgia leaders, including the Georgia Student Finance Commission and members of the Georgia General Assembly, to shine a light on the issue. He even drafted a 24-page briefing document, clearly spelling out how the time limits are unsupportive of students already overwhelmed by tragedy and violate Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 197, as amended.
“As long as these students are making good on their end of the contract, staying enrolled, taking classes, making progress, why would they be penalized?” says Chris, who explained that while the seven-year limit had been changed to 10 years by the legislature in 2019, it was not retroactive, and left students who graduated high school between 2012 and 2018 in limbo.
Thankfully Chris and Grace’s voice and story were heard. Senator Lindsey Tippins of Georgia, who Chris describes as a champion for education, brought the issue to the forefront of the Senate Higher Education Committee, advocating that students with disabilities that preclude them from taking a full course load, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, should be given the time to complete their college degrees.
In his closing statement during a March 10 hearing on the topic, Representative Chuck Martin, chair of the Georgia House Higher Education Committee said, “We do not want to leave this or other individuals short of a scholarship that was earned and should be able to be used.”
The family’s efforts to expand the time students with disabilities, physical or mental illnesses have to complete their studies have paid off. The bill passed unanimously in both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed it into law on May 6 with Grace standing by his side. The next day, the Board of the GSFC approved the regulatory language required to implement the legislation and this is now available on the GSFC website at http://www.gafutures.org .
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to pave the way for others,” says May Byrne, Grace’s mom. “The thing about brain injury and stroke, it’s such a phenomenally complex and overwhelming situation, but this has real, positive ramifications for these kids who work so hard.”
Grace, now 26, has a year or two left to complete her degree, and her parents and sister couldn’t be prouder.
Chris’ advice for other parents?
“Don’t take no for an answer. Find out why they are saying no, as sometimes they have no other legal option. Use that information to find a solution. As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate and you have to push because no one else will do it for you,” he said.
Written by Amanda Crowe
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.