After a college hockey accident left him paralyzed from the chest down 28 years ago this month, Dr. Irmo Marini said he either had the choice to accept his fate, stay home and collect a disability pension or get back in the game and earn as many degrees as possible. He chose the latter.
"This is pretty much the premier award in our profession as it recognizes lifelong overall achievements and contributions to the profession of rehabilitation education. There are approximately 700 rehabilitation educators at over a hundred schools nationally, so I accept the award with great humility. I think most recipients usually get this award near the end of their career, so I'm flattered my contributions were deemed worthy at this stage of mine," Marini said.
The award recognizes educators who have made significant contributions to the rehabilitation field and to the training of rehabilitation professionals. NCRE is a professional organization of educators dedicated to quality services for persons with disabilities through education and research.
He said the award is a testament to UTPA's support of his 12-year career at the Edinburg campus, where he helped establish the master's in rehabilitation counseling program in 1997 as the coordinator, a part of his career that he is most proud of.
"What it says about me as a UTPA professor is really reflected back on just how supportive UTPA has been to me over the years in helping me nurture my skills and allowing me the autonomy and flexibility to pursue my research, teach to my strengths, and allow the time away to serve my profession," he said.
The UTPA rehabilitation counseling program currently ranks as one of the top programs in the country according to the U.S. News & World Report 2009 edition of America's Best Graduate Schools.
Beginning this fall, Marini will once again serve as coordinator of a new program at UTPA and the first program of its kind in the state, the Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Counseling Program.
Several colleagues nominated Marini for the accolade, and all cited his ability to discuss his own personal disability, C-5 tetraplegia, with his students and associates and use it as a tool to enhance his life and the lives of others.
"I don't believe he is distinguished because he has overcome his disability, or compensated for it," wrote Dr. Noreen Graf, Department of Rehabilitation professor who nominated Marini for the honor. "Rather, in the image I conjure up, Dr. Marini grabbed onto it, shook it around a bit, and then used it as a tool to enhance his life and the lives of those around him; as he does with all of his many attributes including his intelligence, humor, and compassion. It is through each of these attributes he has come to connect with people, not only in formal presentations and publications, but in his voluntary motivational talks to local high school students, and in his willingness to serve as a role model to persons with and without disabilities."
Dr. Bruce Reed, College of Health Sciences and Human Services dean, considers Marini one of the most productive UTPA faculty members in the areas of scholarly publications and presentations. Marini has published on a wide range of subjects relevant to the rehabilitation field. He recently published "The Professional Counselor's Desk Reference," a first resource of its kind, serving as a quick, user-friendly guide for both counseling students working toward counselor licensure and certification, and for professional counselors. The 81-chapter guide includes contributions from 95 experts in counselor education, research, and practice.
He is currently working on research concerning the long-term therapy needs of persons with catastrophic injuries, which looks at how much treatment occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists provide people with disabilities and whether or not it's enough, or whether it is limited by insurance maximum visits. So far his initial data has found that insurance limits significantly stifle the maximum gains people with catastrophic injuries can make. In addition, he is looking into what impact religion and spirituality have on people adjusting to spinal cord injury, and also working on producing a report featuring individuals with disabilities and their everyday experiences and discovering what their most pressing issues are.
"Dr. Marini is widely known and respected in the field of rehabilitation. His scholarly works are well known and well read. He is also known on the national level due to his many years of professional service including as president of national professional organizations and service on certifying boards," Reed said.
"One of the strongest attributes of Dr. Marini is his desire and efforts to mentor junior faculty and students in research. Very frequently his published work and presentations include current and former students," added Reed.
Casey Pebley, a former student of Marini's and Project RISE director for WorkFORCE Solutions, said she was not surprised Marini was honored with the award.
"He is most deserving of this award. In fact I would have been very surprised if he didn't win. People like Dr. Marini win such distinguished rewards for a reason," said Pebley, who was one of several colleagues who recommended Marini for the award.
Pebley, who has known Marini for about four years and has worked with him on several outside projects pertaining to her work, said Marini is the type of person that everyone can go to for help, guidance, and mentoring.
"Dr. Marini is a fantastic person and an outstanding professor. To have been taught and mentored by someone like Dr. Marini is a great honor and an incredible opportunity," Pebley said. "All students hoping to achieve a higher college education (graduate or Ph.D.) should have the opportunity to be taught by someone so accomplished and knowledgeable as Dr. Marini is."
Since 1994 Marini, a certified rehabilitation counselor, certified life care planner, and a registered forensic vocational expert, has operated his own forensic rehabilitation consulting practice, Marini & Associates, with offices in San Antonio and Las Vegas. Through his private practice, plaintiff and defense lawyers retain Marini & Associates to develop the overall vocational and future medical care monetary damages when clients are injured either through medical malpractice or product liability.
"As expert witnesses, we testify as to how much money a person may lose vocationally over their lifetime, and alternatively, what will their future medical care costs be. Probably the most exciting thing about this practice is that I not only hire former students to be my associates, but I get to bring these real-life case study experiences into the classroom to share with them," he said.
Marini said he has never really considered his work to be work, but instead a privilege to be able to shape the next generation of young minds.
"I love what I do, I don't consider it work at all; it's fun. What makes it great is working with the students, teaching them, helping them publish, and watching them grow into critical thinkers. When you do something you enjoy, it is rarely if ever stressful, and of course that positively impacts the rest of your life. What I do have to learn from this point is perhaps how to stop and smell the roses a bit more," he said.