To show his fraternity brothers what it’s like to use a wheelchair, Blaise Coco, a finance and international business alumnus who is quadriplegic, borrowed the wheelchairs used by the Rollin’ Owls — Temple’s first wheelchair basketball team — and he rode down Broad Street shoulder-to-shoulder with members of his fraternity.
“It was probably the simplest, most inclusive act of just taking two different thoughts about what disability is and making them one,” said Renee Kirby, the associate director of Disability Resources and Services.
Kirby said she has heard a lot of stories about students with disabilities making a change during her 35 years at Temple. She recently was inducted into the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame.
In her position, Kirby oversees the supervision of disability coordinators. The DRS office works with roughly 2,700 students to ensure they receive full access to the university, be it through accommodations or extracurricular activities, Kirby said.
Aaron Spector, director of DRS, and Trenaya Reid, a 2016 political science alumna, nominated Kirby for the Hall of Fame.
Reid, who is currently pursuing a master’s in public administration at the University of Central Florida, said Kirby taught her how to be an advocate and stand up for herself and other students with disabilities.
“She helped me reach that point of confidence to be an advocate and also to be a mentor since she was a mentor for me,” said Reid, who was an intern for Kirby and hopes to work as a human resource manager or in a diversity and inclusion department.
“I am always humbled when people say what their experience was with me because I am not thinking about that when I’m in mentor mode,” Kirby said. “I’m just trying to help students.”
Before graduating in 1984 with a degree in therapeutic recreation, she started the Rollin’ Owls, and the university hired her to work in DRS after graduation.
Her first connection to DRS was through an internship she had as an undergraduate.
“As an athlete with a disability myself, I wanted to support people and help other individuals with disabilities,” Kirby said. “Therapeutic recreation gave me both the modality and the access to recreation and sports to help individuals recover from various traumas in their life or development issues associated with disabilities.”
She said that having a disability herself brings her closer to the challenges that students with disabilities face every day.
A lot has changed in terms of access for disabled students since she was in school, Kirby said.
“I became disabled over four decades ago,” she said. “The disability laws have changed and that now provides much access in areas like technology, physical access, access to information, communication and those pathways that were almost literally closed when I first got into the field.”
The emergence of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have also helped protect individuals with disabilities and give them access to employment, public accommodations and state and local government services, she said.
The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is two times that of the national unemployment rate, she added.
Forty-six percent of students with disabilities are unemployed post-graduation, Kirby said.
“Part of the reason for that is students with disabilities weren’t as prepared in certain disciplines as their counterparts to enter employment, for various reasons, just receiving educational support in high school when they could have been working or they may have had multiple surgeries while growing during their formative years,” she said.
Kirby created Career Gateway, a professional development resource that pairs students with disabilities with internships, to help change this statistic for Temple alumni.
“We pair with the Career Center as well as other schools and colleges to help students access all that Temple offers in career development,” said Kirby, who also earned a master’s in sport administration from Temple in 1992.
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month, and Kirby said there is a lot of activity focused on the hiring of people with disabilities, which includes getting students registered for the federal Workforce Recruitment Program.
She started Temple’s branch of the WRP 20 years ago, which also helps disabled students get full-time internships and jobs with federal employers throughout the country.
Kirby said each year DRS offers 12 to 15 disabled students paid federal internships.
She added that the honor made her think of her former academic adviser and mentor, John Noisette, a former therapeutic recreation professor and coach for the Rollin’ Owls who passed away in 2008.
“I met him when I was in a rehabilitation center as a teenager and the work he did here for me and for other kids as well, it really changed my life and I really wanted to duplicate that in some way,” Kirby said. And his mentoring led her to mentor others.
“I consider myself a seed planter and once the seed is planted, I always tell my students to blossom and plant more seeds so it just continues,” she added.
Emily Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @emiyivyscott.