Darrel Kirby Wins the 2019 New Venture Competition
Photo: Darrel Kirby accepting his award at Hadley’s 2019 annual meeting. Pictured alongside Darrel is Dr. Lanaya Ethington, co-founder of the clinic.
Darrel Kirby was 20 years old and a junior at the University of Iowa in 2008 when his life was turned upside down. Studying to earn a degree in psychology, Kirby, a diabetic since childhood, began losing his sight. Within a few months, he would be completely blind due to detached retinas that didn’t respond to treatment.
"The most difficult part of going blind is losing your independence," said Darrel, who now works as a therapist and is owner of Iowa City-based Thrive Behavioral Health. “That brought its own set of challenges. I was no longer driving, and traveling was difficult. I was a junior in college and, all of the sudden, I didn’t know how to be a student. I had worked at the university bookstore, and I didn’t know how to do that. I was devastated."
Darrel would leave school and return home hoping for answers but became isolated and depressed. “I lost friends, lost my identity, and went into a dark, hopeless place,” he recalled. “(Before losing my sight) I valued independence, was sociable, had a lot of friends, was willing to take risks and try all sorts of new adventures,” Kirby explained.
"Suddenly, I was scared to do those things. I was scared to leave my apartment, and friends didn't know how to interact with me."
Kirby says a turning point came when he encountered a married couple, both of whom were also blind. “One of them went blind from diabetes at age 23. She was married, had a child, and lived in a beautiful house.” Meeting her surprised and inspired Darrel. “She taught at the university and had earned a PhD,” he recalled. “All of these things shook my idea of what it meant to be blind, and I was forced to open my mind to what it was and what it wasn't.
I thought blind meant helpless, and she encouraged me to seek training and to really figure out the skills of blindness and how to be a blind person in a world that is very much set up for sighted people.”
Darrel would eventually receive guidance from the Iowa Department for the Blind, where he learned Braille, cane travel, how to use the computer, cooking, and other home living skills. He also learned that he didn’t have to give up on all of the dreams he had before he lost his vision.
"I returned to study at the University of Iowa and found I was a much better student when I was blind than I had been when I was sighted," he added. "I was more focused and committed, and my grade point average went up dramatically. Pretty soon, I was on to grad school. For the past 11 years I’ve been working and using my skills of blindness and staying connected with blind people, trying to stay educated about the newest technology. And most importantly, keeping a positive attitude about my blindness."
Earlier this year, Darrel was awarded $30,000 as the winner of Hadley's 'New Venture Competition' for a business plan he developed for a multidisciplinary behavioral healthcare practice he started—coincidentally, also called “Thrive.”