Leaving a Lasting Legacy
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
(Disclaimer: The names besides Fulcher, Neth, and Higginbotham have been changed to protect client-doctor confidentiality).
A strong vocal vowel inflexion “aaah” from a four-year-old, a shape-sorter, and an inspiring babysitter set Katrina Fulcher’s future. She was 16 years old and her parents were worried that her passion for acting would not lead to a stable career. They suggested Fulcher spend the day with her former babysitter, Shawna Slater, who worked as a speech-language pathologist.
Fulcher didn’t know what speech-language pathology was at the time, but she decided to shadow Slater, especially since she didn’t find her niche after shadowing lawyers, doctors, and stock brokers.
The epiphany happened when she watched Slater and 4-year-old Jenny Miller sit on the floor during a speech therapy session. Jenny had never spoken a sound in her life. Suddenly, when she and Slater were playing with a shape-sorter, she looked at Slater and handed her a block. She let out an “aaah” sound with a rising intonation, as if she was asking Slater to continue to play.
The whole room stopped. The girl’s mother started to cry. Her daughter had a voice.
Slater kept eye contact with Jenny and coaxed more sounds out of her.
Fulcher stared in disbelief. She also knew she had found her calling.
Today, Fulcher, 26, is a speech-language pathologist and third year doctoral candidate in communicative disorders and sciences at UB. Her research and clinical work focuses on clients who have lost the ability to talk because of debilitating illnesses like Parkinson’s, autism, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“Unfortunately, in society people look at somebody that has this physical manifestation of a disability and they make judgments on them, make judgments on their intellectual abilities or what they can do or what they can offer to society, and I always want to prove those people wrong,” Fulcher said.
Just ask 12-year-old Jared Newman, a cheery blond boy whose cerebral palsy makes it impossible for him to verbalize speech. Sarcastic and funny, Fulcher helps him reveal his personality and lets his interests in scary stories, haunted houses, and caskets shine through in sessions. He even jokes with Fulcher and calls her “ the evil one” while she jokes back thanking him for the compliment.
Fulcher has been working with Jared for two years and has been using a touch screen device that helps him talk. Jared uses a DynaVox, with programmed features including folders of categories like family, holidays, and colors, as well as a keyboard Jared has access to. The device allows Jared to access the part of his body he has most control over, his knees.
As he sits in his chair, he uses his knees to control two red buttons, which connect to the screen. He also uses this device to access the Internet and complete school work. A text-to-speech function allows him to verbalize his thoughts.
Fulcher also uses the device to help Jared learn to read. Before she started working clinically with him, he didn’t have that ability.
At a recent session, Jared read a full page of Mystery Photo at a first grade level, and there were only two words he didn’t know out of 30.
“[I want] to show people that he can read, and he can learn if you give him the chance and the time and something that’s structured,” Fulcher said. “[I also want] to show everybody at his school he is smart, [and] he does not have an intellectual disability.”
Newman’s brother, Max, has noticed the effects Fulcher has had on Jared’s reading and realizes she is patient at teaching Jared. Before Jared met Fulcher he couldn’t spell at all. Now, he can break down words, read two to three sentences independently, understand more vocabulary, and can formulate entire sentences.
He was an emergent preschool-level reader because he wasn’t taught reading skills. He still has words that might be difficult for him, but jumped two reading levels because of Fulcher’s work.
Fulcher constantly motivates Jared, as she doesn’t ever want him to feel that his cerebral palsy can get in the way of his success, and she reiterates this during her sessions.
“You’ve learned way too early that sometimes life isn’t fair, and sometimes people aren’t always nice,” Fulcher said. “Every morning you’re going to have this choice that you need to make where you’re either going to show the world that everything they think about you is wrong and you’re going to show them every single day, every single sentence how smart you are, and how funny you are, or you can sit in a corner and people will just pass you by.”