What could possibly possess a student to take six extra classes? Eight of us—graduate students at Western Carolina University—have done just that as a part of a preprofessional training grant that prepares us to work with people with severe disabilities.
Our cohort originally applied for the program for self-serving purposes: the tuition assistance, an edge in finding jobs because of our specialized training, and the confidence that comes with more clinical experience. We had no idea the benefits would be far greater and did not realize how entering the world of people with severe and profound disabilities would affect us, both professionally and personally.
"Improving Speech-Language Pathology Services to Children with Severe Disabilities through Preprofessional and Professional Training" is a personnel preparation project awarded to WCU in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. For each of the past four years, eight WCU communication sciences and disorders graduate students have taken six additional graduate courses in CSD, physical therapy and special education, and completed up to 50 clinic hours providing assessment and intervention for children with complex communication needs.
We receive one year of in-state tuition and some professional development, and commit to serve people with severe and other disabilities for two years and to mentor at least five people in communication services for people with severe disabilities.
In classes, we learned about other disciplines such as special education and physical therapy. Professionals with expertise as providers and researchers offered specific instruction on legal and public policy issues related to treating individuals with severe disabilities, use of community resources, critical and evidence-based methodologies useful in communication and other instruction, and collaboration with family members and other professionals. We attended seminars featuring national experts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas at Lawrence on cutting-edge assessment and intervention-based research findings and clinical applications.
In clinical hours, we received hands-on instruction in an assessment clinic for people with the most severe disabilities and in public school classrooms for children with severe disabilities and autism. We implemented ecologically valid assessment protocols and intervention procedures, and interacted with family members and other allied health providers.
Our grant experiences changed us. We gained a new appreciation for the 2 million people who are nonspeaking through the words of parents and professionals who shared some of their most personal experiences as service recipients and providers. Their words allowed us, in a limited way, to experience the world as their clients and children experience it. We learned the power of communication in our clinical experiences, in a child's use of a picture to make a request or selection on a voice output communication aid. The interactions and service opportunities we had with clients and the compassion we gained for them and their families will motivate us long into the future.