If there’s an obstacle in the path of Gerene TeKippe, 22, she will find a way around it.
“I’m outgoing and outspoken, and not intimidated,” she said in describing how she maneuvers through her education, her relationships and her job search. The fact that she has spina bifida introduces unique challenges but rarely gets in her way. When she could not travel in her wheelchair from one college classroom building to another and be on time for class, she talked with the person charged with disability affairs.
“They moved the entire class so I could still attend,” she said. “That showed me the power of speaking up.” She also speaks up when she or her friends are judged based on superficial appearances and not their real abilities.
“I was offered a job recently, but when the HR director came in at the conclusion of theInterview and saw that I was in a wheelchair, she retracted the offer,” Gerene recalled. “I was speechless. I told her she may know the job but I know my abilities. I said that I don’t want to work in an organization that discriminates.”Despite the fact that the HR director’s action was likely illegal, Gerene decided to move forward rather than seek legal action.
Learning to move forward is one of Gerene’s many strengths. “I learned the importance of that from my parents and from an aunt who died from breast cancer. During the year of her treatment, she never lost her poise, her sense of humor or her spirit. I want to live my life that fully.”
Gerene was active in sports, especially in soccer, until she started using her wheelchair at 11. “Then in middle school I took wheelchair track, but the girls I wanted to make friends never accepted me,” she said. “I love being around people. I learn about myself by making friends.”
Her focus now is on “trying to find my place, my piece of a larger puzzle. I know that my puzzle piece is a little different from others.” She writes to help her “get these pieces out of my brain” and aims to write a book. “Once I can put the pieces in order and see a pattern, I will know the life I want to create.”
Aside from writing, she loves music, especially the Renaissance music she sang in high school ensembles. “My musical interests make me a little unique in comparison to other people my age, but that doesn’t bother me,” she laughed. That’s not a surprise for a young woman comfortable in finding her own way.
In talking about her experience with spina bifida, Gerene said the journey has been a “whole family” commitment. “My younger brother had to be a big brother at times, as he helped me out. My father is a logical, linear problem solver. My mother is a sensitive person who supports me emotionally. Together we have made this work,” she said.
Her decision to take a semester off from her master’s degree study of social work allows time for writing and for addressing some feelings of anxiety and depression. “I am a big believer in therapy,” she said.
She also volunteers for the Spina Bifida Association of Iowa. “Adults with spina bifida need more support in transitioning to education after high school and in finding good jobs that take advantage of their skills,” she said. “Too many adults with disabilities are stuck in routine jobs.”
Expect Gerene to speak up about that.