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Communication Needs of Students with Disabilities Focus of New Grant

It’s often thought students with severe disabilities cannot participate in all aspects of the school day, given their difficulty communicating. With the combined help of a classroom teacher and speech language-pathologist, a system can be created to help students with the most severe disabilities to have a voice, University of Kentucky researchers say.

empty classroom photo

With a $1,153,016 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, UK faculty in the College of Health Sciences and College of Education will train master’s students in two separate fields of study – speech language pathology and special education — to learn and work collaboratively.

Those in the teacher leader master’s program in special education are typically current teachers who are completing a master’s degree on a part-time basis. They will have shared courses and assignments with speech-language pathology master’s students. It will culminate in a shared clinical experience in the special education master’s level students’ classrooms in their home districts.

Previous research has shown students with severe disabilities, many of whom are non-verbal, often finish high school without anyone teaching them an alternative way to request wants and needs, comment or ask a question; reach out to others socially, initiate a greeting; choose between options of what to eat or wear; tell people they love them; question things; or use social etiquette.

Yet, those in the field have countless anecdotes about students who had their worlds opened when professionals helped work out a way for them to reach out to others effectively.

“Only a combined effort of the speech-language pathologist and the classroom teacher can achieve consistent communication intervention for these students,” said Dr. Jane Kleinert, a professor in the College of Health Sciences’ Division of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the principal investigator on the grant. “The grant will allow this vital interprofessional approach to be modeled and practiced in both their college courses and when they are in school-based settings.”

Devising a plan and implementing it requires expertise, time, patience, and repetition.

“While the initial effort can be difficult, the benefits of sticking to it can change a person’s life,” said grant collaborator Dr. Margaret Bausch, the associate dean for research and graduate student success in the UK College of Education and a professor in the assistive technology program in the college’s Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling. “Without everyone involved in a student’s life implementing a plan, communication technology can sit unused. There are dozens of methods and technologies to help students communicate, so each needs a personalized approach to see what works best to enable him or her to be understood when encountering new people throughout life, even beyond school.”

Students often make do by communicating in less sophisticated or untraditional ways. They may learn to get what they need by crying, screaming or hitting. Many children with autism have leading behaviors.

“Leading me to something really limits what you are able to tell me,” Bausch said. “Unless you can take me to it, you cannot communicate to me about it. If a child is having a tantrum or melting down on the floor, he is maybe saying ‘I don’t want to do that.’ That is communicating, but if he were able to say ‘stop’ by pointing to a picture, it would give him the ability to communicate more clearly.”

Dr. Melinda Ault, an associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling in the UK College of Education, has worked with students who have moderate and severe disabilities throughout her career. She makes sure the college students in her courses know that if the special education students they encounter in their careers are not able to communicate, it will limit their ability to control their own environment, and potentially lessen their quality of life.

“Communication is essential in everything we do and cuts across all academic areas,” Ault said. “The ultimate goal of the grant is for speech-language pathologists and special education teachers to help students achieve functional communication, which is best described as communication that allows anyone who receives a student’s message to understand it. A parent may know that a child screaming means that he wants to stop doing an activity.  But, if he is given a card that allows him to ask for a break, anyone he encounters will understand his need.”

Special education teachers interested in working on a teacher leader master’s degree, as well as aspiring speech-language pathologists, are currently being recruited for the master’s programs. Those interested in applying to the master’s program in special education (moderate and severe disabilities) can learn more here. Those interested in the speech-language pathology program can learn more here.

“Through the grant’s support, students have an opportunity to earn a master’s degree tuition-free and will have an opportunity to really focus in on the most important aspect of training for our scholars, which is ensuring students who need extra help are able to communicate. They are going to have access to high levels of training and expertise and really come out of the program as experts in this area.”

The grant’s purpose drives home the fact that speech-language pathologists cannot be with each student, working on communication, every minute of the school day. The work they do has to carry over into the classroom and teachers need to be able to follow the recommendations of the speech-language pathologist, the researchers say.

“When conducting an observation, I once walked into a classroom with a new student,” Ault recalled. “She was non-verbal and didn’t have use of her arms. It came time for lunch and they were feeding her and I thought, ‘wait a minute, let’s see what she can do here.’ There was a bowl of applesauce and a bowl of mashed potatoes. We said to her, ‘take a bite of this, this is mashed potatoes.  Now take a bite of this, this is applesauce. Which one do you want first?’ She raised up in her chair and leaned over and pointed her face right at the applesauce. Just giving people the opportunity to be able to express themselves and say what they want, it means the world to them because they are often in the position of having to watch as another person controls their world.”