Trapped in his apartment for one year

November 8, 2010 8:30:48 PM PST
It is a heartbreaking story of a young disabled Brooklyn man who has overcome so many obstacles only to be stopped in his tracks by bureaucratic red tape.

Advocates say his story is often being repeated by people who must rely on motorized wheelchairs.

"Now that my chair's gone, it feels like my freedom's gone," Gary Coleman said.

Coleman, 22, refuses to let his disability define him. He was born with cerebral palsy, which affects his speech and physical function but not his mental ability. He's always been fiercely independent.

"That's right. He used to go everywhere by himself," Cynthia Coleman said.

Everywhere in his motorized wheelchair until it was destroyed 13 months ago.

"It was more like my legs," he said.

It happened as Gary rolled across this intersection near his family's Brooklyn apartment and a car ran him over. He suffered a broken leg and a loss even greater than that.

COLEMAN: "It was like when my chair got messed up it was like my whole life turned upside down."
WALLACE: "Your whole life turned upside down. You've been stuck here for a year?"
COLEMAN: "It's been a year."
WALLACE: "You've been doing nothing but sitting here for a year?"
COLEMAN: "It's basically been a year."

Unable to get to school on his own, he had to drop all his college classes. His mother says she says she's been battling with insurance company, Met Life, ever since the accident trying to get the motorized chair replaced.

In the meantime, the family bought a secondhand manual chair, but that means Gary has to ask for help.

"That's the biggest thing to me is that when I got the chair I was independent," he said.

"We both be depressed because he can't go out. When your child suffers, you suffer, you know?" Cynthia Coleman said.

Gary's motorized chair came from a firm called Rehabco in the Bronx, which specializes in custom chairs.

Rehabco's owner told us Gary's problem is typical. No matter how a chair is damaged, there is a battle against the bureaucracy.

"It's a horrendous system," Jeff Offner, Rehabco's owner, said. "It's a broken health care system."

He says it is not unusual to have people stuck for months.

"I hate to say it, but that's the way it is," Offner said.

Rehabco's owner says with delayed reimbursements by private companies and Medicaid, it's just too expensive for them to provide motorized replacements.

WALLACE: "You admit that you are having to let these people down."
OFFNER: "Absolutely. We just cannot provide the level of care I would like to provide."

Arlene Goldsmith runs an agency that advocates for disabled and chronically ill children and young adults. Many rely on motorized wheelchairs, and most are on Medicaid.

"First of all, most of our kids live below the poverty line." Goldsmith said. "You can put in a request for a piece of equipment and you don't' here back for a month. Can you imagine having to stay home for a year or even a week and not go to school, not go to your job?"

COLEMAN: "I don't care about anything else but my motorized chair. That's all I want."
WALLACE: "Then you can be independent."
COLEMAN: "Then I can be on my own."
WALLACE: "You have big dreams."
COLEMAN: "I have big dreams of being a writer or a doctor."
WALLACE: "A doctor?"
COLEMAN: "A pediatrician. I want to work with kids."

We contacted Met Life and they've now authorized full payment, nearly $18,000 for a new motorized wheelchair for Gary.

Rehabco is rushing the order and Gary should have it within a few weeks. Now all he has to worry about is college tuition.

Still, there are so many others stuck in the system that need help. You can learn more about how to help those children with special needs at http://nackidscan.org./home/index.php.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com and follow Jim Hoffer on Twitter at twitter.com/nycinvestigates


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