Name: Joshuaa Allison-Burbank (Navajo & Acoma Pueblo)
Position: Graduate student, University of Kansas, Intercampus Program in Communicative Disorders
Hometown: Tohatchi, N.M.
Some things are harder than others, but persuading a 3-year-old to wear something new can rank pretty high. For Joshuaa Allison-Burbank, convincing his son, Kaleb, to wear the Kansas University gear is well worth the trouble. It's where they both go to school each morning—one to graduate school, one to preschool.
"The preschool program here actually influenced my choice in programs," says Allison-Burbank. "In essence, both Kaleb and I 'go to school' at KU!'"
Like most people, becoming a parent was transformative for Allison-Burbank—it was both joyous and eye-opening. But for this first-year speech-language pathology graduate student who grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, it went a little bit deeper. At age 18 months Kaleb was diagnosed with a developmental delay and needed interventions. Although he is naturally concerned about his son's needs and outcomes, as is any parent of a child with special needs, Allison-Burbank sees the situation almost as a divine intervention.
"Kaleb teaches me so much and I want to do everything for him," Burbank says. "A lot of people might see having a child like Kaleb as a hindrance, but my people view children with disabilities as sacred and connected to our spiritual world, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be his parent."
Burbank is studying at the University of Kansas and when he goes to class, Kaleb goes to his preschool in the same department. The Language Acquisition Preschool is run by the university's Intercampus Program in Communicative Disorders and uses a language-based curriculum that was created by KU faculty. Each day, Allison-Burbank says, he is reminded why he is pursuing his master's and eventual doctoral degree—to return to his tribe on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico to provide the children with needed services. As a child, he recalls seeing many children and even adults with various communication and learning disorders who never received treatment. He also recalls knowing, even as a child, that these people were missing out on the many traditions of his tribe.
"Our culture is very based in oral communication—we celebrate an infant's first laugh, have many taboos regarding child development and communication. In addition, much of our history and stories are still passed down orally," Allison-Burbank says. "I could see that these individuals weren't making it. They were dropping out and they were struggling. There were children with cleft palate, autism, ADHD, and no one was getting treatment."
When Allison-Burbank was in high school he attended a youth leadership forum on medicine where he learned about Operation Smile, a worldwide children's charity organization that helps treat facial deformities such as cleft lip and palate. It was his first time off the reservation alone and his first experience seeing a program that treated clefts. He saw the children on the posters and immediately recognized them as community members on the reservation—many of whom had such deformities because of the high incidence of clefts in Native American populations. And that's when he learned about speech-language pathology.
"I knew our system for providing services to individuals with communication disorders on the reservation wasn't working and now I could see more clearly why," Burbank says. "I knew I wanted to make a difference in my community and I finally found a way."
And he didn't wade into the profession slowly. In his junior and senior undergraduate years at the University of New Mexico, he worked as a clinical research assistant for the New Mexico Cleft Palate Center of Albuquerque (an independent, multidisciplinary team approved by the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association) and coordinated cleft palate clinics that served tribal communities. He helped clinicians treat and communicate with members of the tribe in a culturally appropriate way. He also worked with community programs and the Indian Health Services to establish care that met all the needs of Native American children with clefts and their families.
"I was the clinic coordinator, but I also served as a cultural broker and that's what these communities need," Allison-Burbank explains. "You could be the best speech-language pathologist in the world, but if you go into a home not understanding how to approach these individuals and their families or how to acknowledge their cultural and spiritual needs, intervention is pointless. You have to treat the person holistically and not go right for what's clinically presented. It's all in the approach."
After graduation he's going back to continue his cultural brokering by being an SLP within his own community, advocating for culturally responsive service-delivery models in health care and educational settings. Being in school and watching his son receive early intervention services serves as a constant reminder of his ultimate goal.
"Being in graduate school and having Kaleb as my son is all working together," Allison-Burbank says. "I watch him and see the progress he is making and how much he is flourishing and I think of the children back in my community who have little to no access to developmental and disability services. I plan to do something about it."