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When language skills fail
Curry program helps people learn, or relearn, how to communicate

By Anne Bromley

“I’m proud of you,” a mother said to her daughter. The statement is not unusual. Parents often praise their children with these words.
But in this instance, the mother’s declaration represents a breakthrough in family communication. She is a head-trauma victim, and relearning how to speak signals her return to a higher quality of life.

Those who work and study in the Curry School’s Communication Disorders program help individuals across the lifespan learn, or relearn, what associate professor Randall Robey described as “an area that is fundamental to the human condition” — using language to communicate.

“Humans cannot not communicate. Indeed, the medium for interpersonal relationship is communication,” said Robey, who has directed the program since 1999.

“The degree to which an individual is independent in communicating with others bears a direct and fundamental relationship to quality of life.”

Whether a newborn has developmental problems or an older adult loses language skills after a stroke, each can benefit from acquiring skills and strategies for communicating effectively.

The Speech-Language-Hearing Center, a critical component of the Communication Disorders program, still fulfills the primary mission for which it was established more than 60 years ago: to provide the community-at-large with access to services related to language development, hearing loss, central auditory processing disorders, difficulty talking after stroke or head injury, and accent modification for individuals speaking English as a second language.

Since the center’s founding, the need for its services has increased, according to center experts. Assistant professor and speech pathologist Rebecca Lower, a Curry School alumna who joined the Curry faculty this August, said medical advances account for the increased need. Premature babies or stroke victims now survive in greater numbers, and health professionals have become better at identifying speech and audiology problems.

The center supports the mission of the Communication Disorders program to prepare speech and language specialists through its master’s and doctoral degree programs. At present, 76 graduate and undergraduate students are enrolled in the program.

Students get extensive clinical training at the center, which offers screenings, evaluations, and treatment to its clients. According to Deborah King, the center’s clinical director, graduates of the program are trained to function in a wide variety of settings, including rehabilitation centers, community health clinics, university centers, research laboratories, private health care agencies and practices, plus federal, state and local government service programs.

One attractive feature of the program is that students can conduct their last-semester internship anywhere in the country.

Lower worked in several jobs as a speech pathologist before switching to her current academic position. She said her goal is to make sure her 50 students “have a picture of what it means to work in the field right now in a real practice.” Joining a team of professionals that participate in a person’s care can be challenging, she said, because of the range of professional knowledge involved. Teams often include physical therapists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, physicians, and, of course, parents.

Center faculty have helped write important legislation, such as the Virginia law that mandates hearing screenings for newborn infants before they leave the hospital. Staff audiologist, Debbie Cox, helped draft similar legislation in North Carolina before moving to Charlottesville.

In addition, the center’s faculty and students participate in the Infant & Toddler Connection of the Blue Ridge program, a state initiative that provides early intervention services and support for children up to age 3.

For more information about the U.Va. Speech-Language-Hearing Center, or to make an appointment, call (434) 924-6354.


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