By: Kathy Smith, MSPA, CCC-SLP/L (retired)
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: Gail Van Tatenhove, MS, CCC-SLP
As our 2018 NWACS Annual Conference nears, we are delighted to shine the AAC Spotlight on this year's conference speaker, Gail Van Tatenhove! Gail is a speech-language pathologist in private practice working with children and adults who use AAC strategies and devices. Her contributions to the field of AAC include development of a loaner bank of AAC devices; development of AAC-based therapy and classroom products; participation in ASHA projects on AAC implementation; editor, coordinating committee member and professional development manager for Special Interest Group 12 of ASHA; board member of USSAAC; and past president of FSAAC, the Florida chapter of USSAAC. Gail has a website and Youtube channel.
How did you get interested in becoming an SLP and particularly working in the field of AAC?
As a kid growing up, my parents and maternal grandmother contributed to a privately run residential school for children and adults with severe disabilities in Iowa. I never visited the place, but from their publications and fund raising efforts, I knew about the needs of people with severe, multiple disabilities. When I started considering what I wanted to do professionally, I was drawn toward the field of education and decided that speech-language pathology was a good fit for me because I could work directly with people with disabilities.
I attended the University of Wisconsin, which some consider the birthplace of the field of AAC. In my coursework as an SLP, I had several classes that addressed the issue of supporting people with limited verbal skills. I also did some clinical practicum with students using AAC systems, such as sign language and manual communication boards. Some of my earliest clinical supervisors commented that I had an exceptional comfort level for working with people with severe disabilities and confirmed that I had a natural intuition for AAC. That solidified for me that AAC was the right choice for me.
Ironically, after I finished my undergraduate and graduate work, I applied to that school in Iowa for a job. They were going through a transitional period, with the school portion of their program being taken over by an area education agency. I applied to this agency and they hired me! I spent the first 5 years of my career (1977 – 1982) working at that school, supporting students from age 2 to 22 with limited verbal skills who had cerebral palsy, profound cognitive challenges, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, hearing loss, and a range of unusual syndromes. Since this was 1977, I made different types of manual communication boards for these students. This was before the days of computer software programs or even commercially available picture sets. So, I had someone draw me a set of pictures on mimeograph paper and I ran them off, colored them, cut them apart, glued them on boards made from tag board, and then covered them in contact paper. Note: Eventually, I discovered and was trained in Blissymbolics, which made the job of making manual boards a lot easier. Everything was labor-intensive work, but I loved doing it, confirming that being an SLP working with students with AAC needs was definitely for me.
Since then, I’ve worked at a statewide AAC assessment center in Florida (1982 – 1988) and then in a private practice supporting people using AAC systems. I’m now 64 years old and continue to have an active caseload of people who use AAC systems. I may not be able to work as long or hard as I used to, but I still believe that I was called to do AAC.
You must be engaged in a variety of AAC related activities. Can you describe a few?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have stood on the shoulders of giants; many who are considered pioneers in the field of AAC. Because of the collaboration with these pioneers, I’ve been engaged in many exciting AAC activities.
In 1979, while at the ASHA Annual Convention in Atlanta, I met Barry Romich, a pioneer in the field of AAC and president of Prentke Romich Company (PRC). PRC had just released their first microprocessor AAC device (the Express I) and Barry introduced me to AAC theorists, university professors, developers, and emerging manufacturers who were at the Convention. It was through that one contact at the ASHA Convention that I met many greats in the field of AAC, such as Lyle Lloyd, Sarah Blackstone, David Buekelman, Arlene Kraat, and Greg Vanderheiden. These movers and shakers invited me to attend informal meetings they were having at the Convention where they were talking about the recognition of AAC by ASHA and the formation of a working group of people to promote AAC among ASHA members. I was in awe of the “big names” who encouraged this rookie in the field to sit at the table with them.
At the next several ASHA Conventions they invited me to participate, until eventually I was chairing the meeting in Seattle, WA in 1990. Eventually, ASHA recognized AAC as an area of practice for SLPs, and in 1992 Special Interest Group 12 (in AAC) was formed. I served on the inaugural Coordinating Committee from 1992 to 1996, then again from 2011 to 2016, becoming the first Professional Development Manager for SIG 12. I remain active in ASHA as a member of the professional development committee as the coordinator for the Edwin and Esther AAC Distinguished Lecture. I believe my continued involvement with ASHA stems from the first meeting with Barry Romich in 1979. It is now my turn to encourage the next generation of SLPs to move forward the field of AAC within ASHA – whether that means having a voice regarding specialty recognition in AAC, improving pre-service training standards for SLPs, or participating in the ASHA S.T.E.P. program to mentor graduate level SLPs.
Another giant in the field who has significantly influenced my AAC activities is Bruce Baker, the inventor of Minspeak. In 1985, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a contract to ASHA entitled Implementation Strategies for Improving the use of Communication Aids in Schools Serving Handicapped Children. In 1986, the project selected 11 Model Outreach Sites from more than 100 nominations. I was working at one of the selected sites that provided AAC assessments for students across the state of Florida. Bruce Baker came down for several days to see what we were doing and to provide some training in his invention that was radically changing the field of AAC – Minspeak! Immediately, Minspeak made total sense to me, mostly because of my experience with Blissymbolics. Over the next couple of years, more and more students were coming through our assessment center who were receiving Minspeak systems (i.e., Light Talker or Touch Talker). My role was to go to the local school district and help the school teams and parents implement the Minspeak system. I would often talk to Bruce about the successes we were having with Minspeak systems with children and adolescents, many who had significant cognitive challenges. I was fascinated by his invention and he was intrigued by my application with people who had deep intellectual and linguistic disabilities. In 1988, he asked me to join his team at Semantic Compaction Systems (his company) with the job of traveling around the country providing training to others in the use of Minspeak. I have to credit Bruce with putting me “on the road,” giving me an incredible amount of experience and exposure providing in-service training. Today, conducting professional development activities represents one of my favorite AAC activities. I love working on projects with educational teams, presenting at conferences, conducting webinars, and developing online training materials.
Of all the activities you do, which one or ones do you enjoy the most?
While I enjoy doing professional development activities, my greatest enjoyment comes as a day-to-day therapist. I started a solo, private practice focusing on AAC in 1988 because I absolutely love doing therapy. While I enjoyed working at an assessment center, I wanted to be more “hands-on” with the people who needed and used AAC. I didn’t feel like I could tell other people what to do and how to improve AAC services if I wasn’t actually doing it myself. I believed that in 1988 and I still believe it in 2018.
As a working therapist, I currently go to several adult day training programs, visit several residential facilities for adults with disabilities, see a couple of high school students after school in their homes, and work with some young, beginning communicators at their homes. There are a handful of AAC users who I have supported, at some level, for many years (e.g., over 20 years). I have to credit them for their patience with me, because I didn’t always have the answers or the strategies to help them initially. But, together, we persisted. I’ve been privileged to watch many of them succeed in a range of educational programs, including college; develop strong, meaningful relationships; and become self-advocates for their rights as people who use AAC. I hope that I played a role in their accomplishments because of my work in helping them learn to use AAC systems that gave them easy access to rich, robust language.
What is the most challenging part of AAC?
The belief that one of the most important aspects of being a top-notch professional in the field of AAC is the appreciation of and respect for the lived experience* of a person who uses AAC. You have to be able to see the person using AAC as a whole person and be willing to invest your best self into her or his life. I don’t mean that you sacrifice your family for your profession nor forgo a balanced personal life for AAC interests, but rather that you are willing to give your very best to ensure that the promise of communication is realized within powerfully practiced AAC use. This can be challenging, especially if you are working with apathetic people or within a system that doesn’t give you the time or resources to do your job adequately. Rising about those barriers is a challenge that has to be faced on a daily basis.
(*Kathy Howery, Ph.D., an AAC colleague from Edmonton Canada, wrote a compelling article for Phenomenology Online [retrieved at http://www.phenomenologyonline.com/sources/textorium/howery-kathy-the-experience-of-speaking-through-a-machine/] entitled The Experience of Speaking through a Machine. This article is a good introduction to helping anyone think about the lived experience of using an AAC device.)
There is a trend that I’ve been observing in the field, particularly among young SLPs, that I find incredibly challenging. That trend is “AAC Assessment via Social Media.” One SLP posts at a social media site, such as Facebook or Twitter, a description of a person who needs an AAC system and asks others to make recommendations. The result will be a bevy of responses that are typically based on “what worked for me.” I look at these exchanges and, in my head, I’m screaming “GO TO THE ASHA PRACTICE PORTAL ON AAC…….. START THERE …….. STUDY THE EVIDENCE …… LEARN WHAT YOU ARE ETHICALLY SUPPOSED TO DO IN AN AAC ASSESSMENT!” I fear that the “root” of this practice is that ASHA has no requirement for a specific, dedicated course in AAC at the undergraduate or graduate level. ASHA only requires pre-service training in AAC to be infused into other courses. As a result, the degree and focus on AAC at the university level varies considerably from program to program. I imagine the SLP is using social media for AAC information because she wasn't given proper university-based training. As a field, we all have to continue to address this challenge.
Lastly, the work I did in 1977 to help people learn how to use core vocabulary, build sentences, engage in conversation, and influence others through communication is just as challenging today as it was 30 years ago. When I mention that to young professionals in the field of AAC, they often ask “but hasn’t it gotten easier with the new technology?” This response reflects the illusion that technology is the “fix” for the deepest and most fundamental of our AAC issues, such as struggles with language learning, limited motivation to communicate, and balanced social interaction. The first speech generating devices introduced in the 1980s didn’t fix these issues, and the newest whiz-bang device to be released in 2019 is probably not going to fix it either. I love the amazing progress we have made technologically in the field of AAC, but the real hope of communication power lies in language. And language is a challenging thing to teach!
Thank you, Gail, for taking a moment to participate in our AAC Spotlight series! We look forward to learning from you in person at NWACS2018.
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.