Advocacy Through Adversity

Graduate Student Empowers Others to Belong


Evan Kirksey speaking at the 417 Think Summit 2018, a Southwest-Missouri conference focused on big ideas and sparking change. Kirksey was giving a speech entitled “Taking the Dis out of Disability.”

Written by Stephanie Rogers, Staff Reporter

Early in life, Graduate Student Speech and Debate Coach Evan Kirksey was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which is a movement disorder that impacts a person’s motor functions. However, he believes it never hindered his passion to be an advocate for people with disabilities.
“Whether people believed in me or not, I was going to believe in me, and I was going to figure it out. Whether it is as simple as giving speeches about disability in tournaments every single weekend and informing a variety of judges,” Kirksey said.
Growing up, he found there was a stigma surrounding his disability that was so widespread and so large. Initially, when learning about his diagnosis, he was filled with such a sense of shame.
“I always felt such pressure to just live up to everybody else because I felt like I was starting at such a disadvantage,” Kirsey said.
Since then, Kirksey has transformed the way he sees his disability. He now works with abled-bodied allies.
“There’s simply no way for an able-bodied person to truly understand the struggles. However, if they try to learn, they can empathize. They can support, but it’s all about how you go about asking those questions. You know it’s not ‘Why do you walk like that?’” Kirksey said.
He seeks to be a positive ally that offers support and encouragement. “Showing people like me that all you have to do is try, you know, believe in yourself enough to at least take the chance because the chances will work out eventually.”
While teaching Public Speaking as a graduate-teaching assistant at the University of Central Missouri and competing at Speech and Debate tournaments, Kirksey often views prompts and creates speeches through the lens of disability.
“I always thought he was one of the most genuine speech givers on the circuit because a lot of people do it for points, a lot of people want to win all the trophies they can, but I could tell that he actually cared about these issues,” Graduate Student Speech and Debate Coach Manuel Reyes said.
Kirksey’s care extends further than giving his own speeches that he is passionate about at tournaments. Now, he helps coach several students on the UCM Speech and Debate Team helping them raise their voice on topics they are also passionate. Many believe he is very hard-working and always available for his students.
“He even called me at midnight one night when I was stumped and needed help,” Senior Caleb Nading said. “When it comes to debate, he has a unique outlook on different issues and some of his ideas. I would never have thought of them, and they’ve helped me to win rounds.”
Kirksey said his future plans center around reducing the stigma around disabilities and working on new safety procedures. He started working with Safe and Sound Schools to create the program “Especially Safe”, which is a program to prepare school planning teams on how to address the safety and security needs of all members of a community, especially disabled ones.
“I feel very strongly called to the field of disability studies. I reached out to Michelle Gay of Safe and Sound Schools [an organization aimed at crisis prevention, response, and recovery in schools] and said, ‘listen, I know that I’m a 20-year-old, I know this sounds crazy, but just talk to me. I feel very strongly called to decrease the stigma I felt for so long,” Kirksey said.
This led to Kirskey being invited as the keynote speaker at the National Summit on School Safety and a position with Safe and Sound as an advocate and presenter.
“I know that he was able to talk with some of the families,” Reyes said. “He’s been very involved.”