As an undergraduate student at Mississippi State, Nikoya Gillespie was aware of the T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability on campus but knew very little about it. Years later, everything changed when she received a medical diagnosis that would eventually lead her to its doors. Today, Gillespie is one of the center’s biggest fans.
“Now I tell everyone about the T.K. Martin Center and how wonderful it is,” Gillespie says. “It’s a hidden treasure to me.”
The T.K. Martin Center is a clinical, research and training facility that specializes in helping people with disabilities benefit from assistive technologies. The center offers services regardless of age or diagnosis — from giving voice to a child with speech impairment to helping students with dyslexia learn to read to customizing wheelchairs for people with mobility impairments.
The staff stays busy year-round performing assessments and evaluations statewide to ensure that Mississippians with disabilities find the technological solutions they need to live life to its fullest.
Cirlot-New joined the center in 1996 shortly after its opening and says it has remained true to the legacy of its namesake, the late Dr. Theodore K. Martin, a respected MSU leader who led efforts to make the campus accessible for disabled students years before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law.
“I tell people all the time that we have the hardest working staff on campus,” Cirlot-New says. “They’re here because this is what they want to be doing. People who interact with our staff quickly learn how dedicated they are to serving individuals with disabilities.”
For Gillespie, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2013 placed her on the path to the T.K. Martin Center. At the time, she and her husband were raising two small children, and she had a full-time job at a nonprofit that involved frequent travel.
“As the MS progressed, I was less and less able to use my legs to walk or drive, and my coordination and balance declined,” she says. “When I had to stop driving, I was unable to continue my job. The MS gradually took my independence from me.”
Within a few months of contacting the T.K. Martin Center in 2017, Gillespie’s situation had improved dramatically. Specialists at the center recommended hand controls for her vehicle, which allow her to drive again. They also customized a wheelchair with a power-assist feature that she controls with a wristband.
After her mobility problems were addressed, it didn’t take long for Gillespie, who lives in Starkville, to land a new job at the local OCH Regional Medical Center.
Using transformative technologies and therapies to help people overcome limitations is only one aspect of the T.K. Martin Center. The staff also is dedicated to creating empowering experiences that allow people to connect with others, set and reach goals, and build a sense of self-confidence and achievement.
Every summer, kids from across the U.S. who use communication devices travel with their families to MSU’s campus to attend Camp Jabber Jaw. During their week at State, campers enjoy the usual summer recreations like horseback riding and swimming along with activities that encourage them to improve their communication skills.
“Many times, they may be the only ones in their school districts who use communication systems, so the camp is an opportunity for them to see that there are others just like them,” says Cirlot-New. “We also bring in adult users of augmentative communication so children and their families can see what can be accomplished if they keep working and practicing on their devices.”
Another program called “EXPRESS Yourself Art!” enables adults with the most severe disabilities to create paintings with the assistance of specially trained staff members. Their original artworks are displayed in the center’s Martha Lipsey Art Gallery along with art-inspired note cards, T-shirts and merchandise that help generate funds to support the center’s programs.
Along with serving people with disabilities and their families, the T.K. Martin Center has been instrumental in raising awareness about assistive technologies and providing educational, training and internship opportunities for students as well as practitioners throughout Mississippi.
While technology plays a central role in the center’s mission, every day its staff proves that the most powerful force in producing positive outcomes is the human touch.