Kelly Cook: 20 years of breaking down barriers for disabled

Kelly Cook poses for a photo in her office doorway. Cook is the assistant director for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Services and a supervisor with the Independent Living Services. In June, she won the Missouri Rehabilitation Association's Lifetime Service Award.

Kelly Cook poses for a photo in her office doorway. Cook is the assistant director for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Services and a supervisor with the Independent Living Services. In June, she won the Missouri Rehabilitation Association's Lifetime Service Award. Photo by Julie Smith.

Kelly Cook knew in high school she was interested in helping people with disabilities. Volunteering in a hospital setting led her to the idea that counseling might be a good way to start.

She picked up American Sign Language to better help clients early in her career.

“And it’s been nice to be able to communicate with my aunt,” she added.

In June, she won the Missouri Rehabilitation Association’s Lifetime Service Award. On Aug. 2, she’ll celebrate her 20th anniversary working for the state of Missouri.

Cook works for Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, a state program that helps people with disabilities obtain and maintain employment. The VR program is part of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Today, she serves in a dual capacity — as assistant director of deaf/hard of hearing services and as a supervisor of the Centers for Independent Living.

That latter responsibility is new to her.

“I started doing that since March,” she said.

Cook and three other colleagues monitor the 22 Centers for Independent Living scattered across the state. They ensure the centers are complying with the law, and they help disburse federal funding that keeps the agencies operating. Every two years, each center is reviewed.

Those that are doing a good job meeting clients’ needs “get a thumbs up,” she said. Those that aren’t meeting the state’s requirements are asked to follow a plan of action for correction, she said.

For years, Cook worked as VR counselor, helping people with disabilities get the assistance and training they needed to find a job. Over the years, technological advances have revolutionized the job market for people with hearing loss. Not only do many deaf people use cochlear implants today, they also rely on all the IT devices that have made human communication more about typing and less about talking.

As a counselor, Cook used her knowledge of ASL to communicate with her clients. While many state workers sit behind shaggy stacks of paper trays and 3-ring binders, Cook’s desk is clear so visitors can see her arms and hands. A video phone sits on the corner.

“I don’t know if I’m fluent, but I’m functional,” she said.

Today, she oversees eight counselors from across the state who serve deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

As an administrator, she no longer works directly with clients. Instead, she pulls together training seminars for the counselors she manages and she handles questions from them as they arise. “If there are questions, concerns — and sometimes complaints — about the program, they are directed at me,” she explained.

She said many times employers don’t intend to discriminate, but they are uncertain about how to communicate with a deaf person. Counselors at Vocational Rehabilitation help their clients address and surmount those concerns.

“Vocational rehabilitation gives a lot of opportunities to individuals to help them find good employment that is consistent with their limitations,” she said.

Cook was born and raised in Columbia. She earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Missouri in 1993.

Cook lives with her husband, Michael Cook, in Hartsburg. The couple loves animals and has numerous pets, including three horses, several cats and a black Labrador named Minnie.

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