When Heather Willie learned that her young son was deaf, she worried that because of his disability, he would struggle with communication throughout his life. But at 18 months, Henry Willie received a cochlear implant.
“A few months later, Henry said his first words,” says Heather. “A year later, he was talking non-stop! I never in a million years thought this would be possible. Our therapist, Judy Odendahl, was part of our family. She spent so much time teaching us about the cochlear implant.”
Odendahl is a 1983 Fontbonne graduate of the deaf education program and currently team teaches a class at Fontbonne during the summer. She is a family center therapist at St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, where Henry, now 3, attends preschool.
This year, a new program at Fontbonne, funded by a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will increase the number of qualified speech-language pathologists prepared to work with children like Henry. This includes children who are deaf and use cochlear implants, as well as children who use communication devices because of conditions like cerebral palsy, brain injuries, strokes, muscular dystrophy and other disorders.
Through the grant, the university is now offering — within its speech-language pathology master’s program — a 23-credit- hour graduate concentration program focusing on the specific needs of these two groups. Currently, many graduate programs don’t include coursework that focuses on working with children who use cochlear implants or augmentative or alternative communication systems, says Dr. Gale Rice, professor and chair of Fontbonne’s communication disorders and deaf education department.
Dr. Susan Lenihan, professor and director of Fontbonne’s deaf education program, agrees. “Cochlear implants can make a dramatic difference in the educational experience for children,” she says. “Henry and his family have benefited from early identification, early access to listening through cochlear implantation, and excellent early intervention services. When he enrolls in his local school it will be very beneficial for him to have a speech-language pathologist who is knowledgeable about providing services to children using cochlear implants. But if there aren’t knowledgeable professionals in the schools who can work with children to use the devices successfully, then they are not as useful.”
Because of this, working with a professional can make a huge difference in the life of a child with hearing loss.
“Children will benefit from speech-language pathologists who have expertise in both the ever changing technology and the language challenges these children experience,” Rice says.“And we’ll also be focusing on good collaborative skills that therapists need to work with other professionals.”
TEACHING FOR THE RIPPLE EFFECT
Rice and Lenihan spearheaded the grant effort for the Fontbonne program.
“Twenty years ago — even five years ago — there weren’t the devices that are available today,” Lenihan says. “Our goal is to educate children as much as possible in their neighborhood schools by preparing professionals to serve in those educational settings.”
Through this grant, eight graduate students per year for three years will be enrolled in this new concentration. The grant will provide partial scholarships for the students, as well as books and stipends. “This will attract top students and give us a broader national pool and more diverse group,” Rice says.
In that first year after graduating, these new professionals will provide training — under the supervision of a Fontbonne mentor — to faculty and staff in local schools. “When you multiply 24 training sessions by the number of faculty members in the schools we’re reaching, you can see how this will have a tremendous ripple effect,” Rice says.
FINDING a Voice
The day Natalie Bales found out her 6-month-old son had cerebral palsy, she painfully observed the neighborhood children riding tricycles and playing basketball. Silently, she ticked off a list of “my-son-won’t-be-able-to’s.”
But now, 11 years later, the list is much shorter than Bales anticipated.
“Doctors told us Christopher would never walk, but this past March he started walking,” she says. “He went on his first field trip and walked 1.2 miles without assistance.”
Christopher also was born with closed lip schizencephaly, additionally complicating his ability to communicate. Since he was 4, he has used a communication device to help him express his needs. The current device he uses is like a small computer. To communicate, Christopher pushes icons that represent everything from classmates to his dog to hockey. Devices like these also help people who suffer from brain injuries, strokes, muscular dystrophy and other disorders.
“The communication device opens up a whole new world,” Bales says. “We were afraid he would rely on the device instead of trying to speak, but when he’s relaxed, he will try to speak.”
Christopher received speech-language therapy from a very young age. Now he attends special education classes at his local school. A speech-language pathologist trained in how to use the communication device came to Christopher’s school to teach the staff how to work with the device.
Rice points out that Fontbonne’s speech-language program is unique because it combines training as well as collaboration with schools.
“Teaching classroom teachers and parents how to use devices is key,” she says. “A significant body of research says if children are to be successful, they must have strong and informed support from their school and family.”
And the support of expertly trained professionals committed to improving lives.