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Quadriplegic decries state's system of caring for severely disabled

A quadriplegic who won court permission to shut off his life-sustaining ventilator says the state's way of caring for the severely disabled was a big reason behind his wish to die. Larry McAfee, 34, appeared Tuesday before the Georgia Senate to plead for changes in Georgia's system of care for the disabled, which he called obsolete and cruel.

Although he has changed his mind and decided to live, McAfee said the quality of his life since he was paralyzed in 1985 has been poor, primarily because he has been in institutions.

"When you look at me, try to remember that, but for the grace of God, you could be like I am," he said, speaking slowly and sometimes gasping for breath. "Imagine being 34 years old and being forced to live in a nursing home, far from your family and friends."

McAfee asked a Superior Court judge in Atlanta last year to grant him permission to unplug the ventilator that has helped him breathe since he was paralyzed from the chin down in a 1985 motorcycle accident.

The court agreed and the ruling was upheld by the state Supreme Court, but the case raised questions about the quality of life states provide for the disabled. Advocates for the disabled later persuaded McAfee to change his mind about dying and promised to help him find employment.

McAfee, a mechanical engineer and outdoorsman before his accident, is dependent on Medicaid and Medicare to pay for the care he receives in an Alabaster, Ala., nursing home equipped to care for patients on ventilators.

He has said that depression over becoming an indigent ward of the state contributed to his wish to die.

"I will never, never get used to being totally paralyzed and helpless," McAfee said. "But I have accepted it as my fate."

McAfee said the state should adopt programs of independent living for the disabled and should not send them to out-of-state nursing homes.

"Unless I and others like me have your help, we have no hope for the future," he said. "If only some of you would have the courage to push for change."