By: Cassandra Stafford, MS, CCC-SLP/L, ATP
AAC Spotlight is a series of interviews that we hope will be another resource. Reading about other people who are interested in AAC (augmentative-alternative communication) can help us connect with each other and share experiences and concerns. NWACS will occasionally interview people to help all of us learn more about each other and AAC.
In the Spotlight: Kathy Smith, MSPA, CCC-SLP/L (retired), NWACS Vice President
Kathy is the current NWACS Vice President and a former NWACS President, a role she served in for many years. While I currently relish the mentorship (and friendship) I receive from her, she and I were also co-workers for several years. For this installment of AAC Spotlight, I turn the tables on Kathy and shine the spotlight in her direction.
How long have been an SLP? How did you find your way to AAC? What settings have you worked in? Are you still involved with the field of AAC?
My career began with a brief job at the University of Washington Experimental Education Unit (EEU) and Seguin School before attending one of the first AAC workshops put on by Pacific NW Non-Vocal Communication Group in about 1976. PNWN-VCG is NWACS former name. That was when I became very interested in AAC and shortly after accepted a job at UCP Residential Center, a 110-bed facility for young adults with mobility problems. Most of them needed AAC. And you can imagine what AAC was like then! Fortunately, I was able to connect with Dr. David Beukelman who was working at the University of Washington and was our expert in Seattle. I also (later) worked at the University of Washington Medical Center as the AAC specialist and, finally, at Fircrest School (Residential Habilitation Center). At this time I am retired but still support a couple people with AAC needs whom I have worked with since 1977.
How did you keep up with the changes, developments and new technologies in AAC over the decades?
Initially, AAC was so new that books, research articles, etc. were really not available. We were literally learning on our own. But that was exciting! Those of us interested in AAC in the Pacific Northwest - Spokane, Portland and Seattle, etc. - connected with each other through annual workshops, newsletters, and monthly meetings. Sometimes an interest group was spontaneously developed in Seattle for about 3 to 4 months which met weekly to learn about specific AAC topics such as Minspeak, which developed into what is now the Unity language system (used in PRC AAC systems). In addition, NWACS had 6 to 8 monthly Evening Seminars usually held at Seattle Children's Hospital which I went to religiously! The May Evening Seminar was usually a sharing night. All of us could bring or talk about something new we learned that year which really made a difference in our work. Of course, as more AAC research and literature became available, some of us also attended conferences such as WSHLA, ASHA, USSAAC, ISAAC, RESNA and Closing the Gap, as well as obtaining more education through SETC and WATAP.
Tell us about one of your biggest AAC ‘ah-ha’ moments.
I had so many ‘ah-ha’ moments, but I would say one that I experienced early on in my career was when I was providing an electronic speech output AAC system with what I thought was very functional but limited vocabulary providing quick access to mostly phrases and words. I was excited about this new efficient system. But one of my first clients to try it quickly taught me a lesson. On a very hot day, I asked her how she felt knowing the word “hot” was a programmed word in the system. She laboriously and slowly typed, “warm.” When I asked her why she did not use the word “hot” which would be much faster, she reported that she did not feel hot. A wonderful lesson in the importance of vocabulary development!
What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned over the course of your career as an AAC-SLP?
I learned something from every client - so many lessons! I love puzzles. For me each client is a puzzle. So, if I don’t see success, what part of the puzzle is missing? I remember one client in particular whose puzzle just did not fit together. In researching her past services, I discovered the client had speech therapy in the schools for 2 years focused on answering yes/no questions with small improvement. Upon my recommendation, and under protest from the parents, her hearing was checked. It was discovered that she had a severe hearing loss; so severe she was not able to understand spoken language. She was not the only client I saw who had a significant sensory loss that had been undetected for many years. Something so simple yet often overlooked.
Professionally, what is your most cherished memory?
My most cherished memory is watching people’s joy after they experience the power of their first speech output communication system. In the early days, and after voice output intelligibility improved, I often had opportunities to see that happen – while they were waiting at the bus stop, shopping at the mall, and singing at church.
Having watched the field of AAC develop from its infancy, do you have any words of wisdom to share for those in the trenches today?
My words of wisdom are to ‘keep plugging away’ - and in so many ways. We need to help people with AAC needs get more funding for AAC training; access for AAC equipment including funding for repairs; as well as access to rehab engineering services when needed.
Thank you, Kathy, for relinquishing the reins momentarily and allowing me to interview you for our AAC Spotlight series!
You can read our other posts in our AAC Spotlight series by clicking HERE.
Do you have a suggestion of someone you would like to see us interview for AAC Spotlight? Let us know in a comment below or send us an email.