Actively Advocating: Community Members Support Those with Disabilities

Toledo City Paper recognizes disability advocates working to ensure safety, accessibility and justice for members of our community with disabilities. 

Jennifer Kirby 

Owner/Manager, Compass Rose Disability Advocates

“I’m kind of an education junkie,” Jennifer Kirby says with a laugh. Kirby holds two master’s degrees (one in library science and another in organizational leadership), a certificate in autism intervention and she briefly attended law school (she didn’t finish because of her full time work schedule)… and she has cerebral palsy. 

Kirby is the owner/manager of Compass Rose Disability Advocates. All of the Advocates have a disability or have a family member with a disability. Kirby approaches her advocacy work as a person with a disability; an approach that, she explains, makes her agency unique.  “We’re all very clear at Compass Rose that the child with the disability is our client along with the parents.  Many agencies (like ours) call themselves ‘parent advocates’…we’re (advocating) for both,” Kirby said. 

For more than 30 years, Kirby has worked in disability advocacy prior to  founding Compass Rose in March, 2023. She knows the importance of having an advocate and credits her mother for being her biggest supporter. 

“Looking back over my life, I have always advocated for myself, but my mom was always a strong advocate for me, as well. I had her as a role model as an advocate,” Kirby relates, adding, “My mom advocated for (me in many areas). I was raised (in a way that) if you see something or someone that needs assistance, don’t just sit around and complain, but try to help with it,  try to fix it.” 

Katie Hunt Thomas 

Director of Advocacy, The Ability Center

Katie Hunt Thomas is a disability rights attorney and Director of Advocacy for The Ability Center of Greater Toledo. The Ability Center is one of 12 Centers for Independent Living located across the state of Ohio and one of the largest Centers of its kind in the country. Hunt Thomas is the only attorney working directly for a Center for Independent Living in Ohio, a unique advantage, useful in the field of advocacy. 

“The advocacy program intends to change laws and policies to support community members with disabilities, so it’s valuable to understand how those laws and policies are going to accept people with disabilities and make recommendations on how to change them,” Hunt Thomas explains. 

Hunt Thomas always had a love for reading and writing along with a desire to positively impact the world around her. She followed that desire into the field of law with an idea to fight for the public interest. After graduating from the University of Toledo School of Law in 2009, Hunt Thomas began working at a nonprofit law firm handling education and housing matters. But it was her experience growing up with a sister with Down Syndrome and witnessing the challenges her sister faced in education, employment and living independently that drew Hunt Thomas to The Ability Center.

“My parents never hired an attorney, but they definitely brought in individuals to advocate on her behalf… I’ve seen what challenges are out there – things that need to be faced and remedied to ensure that folks are able to love their best life,” Hunt Thomas said.

Tim Tegge 

Executive Director, The Sight Center of Northwest Ohio

On his day off from his full-time gig as the executive director of The Sight Center of Northwest Ohio, Tim Tegge attended a couple of meetings and then went to his part-time gig, as a musician, playing songs he has written, at a nursing home near his home in Bowling Green. 

“I don’t think of myself as a musician as I do a songwriter. I wouldn’t be a songwriter if it weren’t for my vision impairment,” Tegge explains. “The visual world is boring so I tend to connect more with my thoughts. Sitting with lots of people as the passenger in many cars, I hear a lot of great stories and great phrases… with all of that combined; if I had normal vision and could drive, I would still love music, but I would never heard those stories and, likely, I would have never finished a song.”

Before Tegge became the executive director of The Sight Center, he was a client. He was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease (early onset macular degeneration) at the age of 12. Tegge was on the Board for six or seven years, on staff at the Center for eight years and has been the executive director, overseeing the nonprofit organization, for the last year. He’s only the second director in the Center’s history to have a vision impairment and he is living proof that a vision-impairment can offer a new beginning. The Sight Center assists people with vision problems to learn how to navigate, how to use current technology to assist in communication while also educating the community on current vision-impairment issues. 

“Don’t let (a vision impairment) stop you from doing what you want to do,” Tegge urges, adding, “It’s not all negatives that come with having a disease like this – there are some positives, meeting really cool people, learning patience, learning to persevere through hard times, and learning how to be a good listener.”