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communication disorders

Associate Professor of Communication Disorders Kelly Mabry and her daughter, Teagan Mabrysmith, with a young friend in Ecuador

With the help of her daughter and Southern Connecticut State University graduate students, Associate Professor of Communication Disorders Kelly Mabry is addressing an international epidemic and helping to bring medical attention to an underrepresented group: thousands of children — and even adults — worldwide who are unable to smile because of a facial deformity like a cleft palate.

A cleft palate happens when the roof of the mouth contains an opening into the nose. These disorders can result in frequent ear infections and feeding, speech, and hearing problems. Each year in the United States, about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate. Worldwide, it is estimated that a child is born every three minutes with a cleft — about one in 500-750 births. Left untreated, the consequences of cleft lip or palate can be devastating.

Mabry, who has taught at Southern since 2011 and is a craniofacial speech pathologist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, has been passionate about craniofacial disorders for decades. She began her education at Southern in 1982, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication disorders. In 1989, she took a position on the Cleft Palate Team at Newington Children’s Hospital; she’s been there ever since. In 1996, she was the director of the team when they moved to Hartford as Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and six years later, Mabry went on her first medical mission to the Congo with Operation Smile.

In her words, “My passion for international cleft care only increased.”

When Mabry started teaching at Southern, she advocated for an Operation Smile Club, which was realized in 2012 (she is still the club’s adviser). She continued her international efforts, traveling to Bolivia with Operation Smile in 2015. She joined Global Smile Foundation (GSF) that same year and traveled through the organization to Ecuador in 2016 and 2018, where she met patients and conducted speech evaluations. GSF is a non-profit organization that provides cleft care throughout the world; it helps those living where the incidence of cleft is often higher than average and the access to cleft care is very limited.

“I love traveling and getting to know the culture and communities that I visit,” Mabry said. “We are definitely not visiting tourist locations, and that is what I love. The relationships that I have developed with community providers and families are amazing.”

Last March, she was able to bring two Communication Disorders graduate students and her 13-year-old daughter, Teagan Mabrysmith, with her through GSF to Guayaquil, Ecuador, on a 10-day humanitarian outreach trip.

“Southern’s Communication Disorders department takes pride in involving both graduate and undergraduate students in research opportunities and field experiences,” Mabry said. “My students in Communication Disorders are always eager to hear about these missions, and I try to involve as many students as I feasibly can during a busy mission. I am working on developing a course where I can bring more students and piggyback off of missions so that we can do speech camps for a few weeks. The feedback I had last year was so affirming — the students loved the experience. So much so that they both joined GSF upon graduation and are coming back with me this year as veterans!”

Her daughter, also inspired by her mother’s outreach, recently launched a Save-a-Smile campaign to raise $35,000, which GSF can use to cover the expense of a Nasendoscope, a scope used to observe the closure of a patient’s palate. GSF currently does not own its own portable scope system.

On March 8, Mabry, her daughter, two current students, and two graduate students in the Communication Disorders program returned to Guayaquil, again through GSF. Mabry is conducting research during this mission, and her students are directly involved.

“I am more passionate about international medical opportunities in craniofacial disorders every time I go abroad,” Mabry said. “I am very fortunate that my experience in the field affords me the opportunity to work with some of the best surgeons in the world who volunteer vast amounts of time for this cause. I am working collaboratively with the GSF team to develop standards of care for children in underdeveloped nations so that all children with craniofacial disorders can be guaranteed quality treatment.”

Now that is something to smile about.

Chapel Haven students and SCSU students in Communication Disorders class

Taking your first college class can be daunting, but really, any kind of new social experience might be enough to make even the most seasoned of students pull inside their shell. Barbara Cook, assistant professor of communication disorders, says that everyone faces challenges with communication, and with this thought in mind, she and Deborah Weiss, professor and chair of communication disorders, created a course called “Fundamentals of Social Communication,” which they taught for the third time this summer. Three communication disorders graduate students – Aideen Hanion, Hailey Jacobs, and Katerina Marlin — assisted with the class.

The course is unique in that it represents a partnership between Southern and Chapel Haven’s Asperger Syndrome Adult Transition Program. While the course is open to anyone, the class comprises university students interested in communication disorders and adults with disabilities who live at or take day programs at Chapel Haven, an award-winning, nationally accredited school and transition program in New Haven that serves over 250 adults with a variety of abilities and needs.

“The course title is reflective of its content,” says Cook. “We named it strategically.” The course is based on a theory of how people use their cognitive ability to be good at social communication. For the students from Chapel Haven, Cook and Weiss thought it would be helpful to take a class with students who have cognitive ability and to have the content of that class teach about social communication. Cook said the course covers social cognition and brain processes involved in social communication.

Weiss added that she and Cook worked to develop a course that would be academically challenging for all students while also taking into consideration the needs of students who are having their first taste of college. The course really has something for everyone: the advantages of the course to communication disorders students, say Cook and Weiss, are that it is an elective introductory course in social cognition and communication that is useful personally and professionally, and that it provides a greater depth of knowledge in social cognition and communication.

Advantages of the course to Chapel Haven students are that it’s a first college or university experience and the first time on the SCSU campus for most, and they are learning on an academic level about content that poses personal challenges.

In the course, all students have the opportunity to expand personal and group communication skills through daily interaction with classmates during planned team-based activities. Students also gain a broader perspective on social interaction strengths and challenges faced by their peers.

The response from communication disorders students who have taken it has been overwhelmingly positive, says Weiss. Chapel Haven students are also pleased with their experience in the class. One of these students, a young woman named Bethany, said this was her first college class and she was “happy about getting some college experience.” She added that she liked learning about the ways people with special needs communicate and how they learn to communicate.

In one class session, discussion focused on using one’s body to establish a physical presence. The students talked about respecting personal space, how to enter a group, approach a group, or pop into a group for brief conversation. They discussed eye contact and why it’s important when communicating with another person. These elements of social interaction might come naturally to some people but not others, and the class analyzed the behaviors to understand their role in communicating.

The students agreed that they can use what they learn in the course not only in their college careers but also in work settings, because becoming a better communicator is a skill from which everyone can benefit.

 

Students from the Department of Communication Disorders presented three research papers at the 2017 National Black Association for Speech Language and Hearing Conference on April 8. Two of the papers earned the distinction of highlighted posters, and were recognized among “the best research posters presented by faculty, students and clinicians.”

Undergraduates Coral Jiménez, Jacqueline Hernández-Flores, Teresa Wirtemburg, Shea Keeley, and Giovanna Diana presented “Cultural Competence Club–Join-Up!”  The paper examined the development of Southern’s trailblazing student-led organization Cultural Competence Club, which invites cross-disciplinary involvement in learning about and engaging across cultures.

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Pictured Left to Right: Shea Keeley, Glenda DeJarnette (Mentor), Jacquelin Hernández-Flores, Coral Jiménez, Teresa, Wirtemburg.

Graduating senior Taylor Bird presented “Systematic Review of African American English (AAE) Narrative Discourse: Impact on Literacy.” The paper was an extension of research Taylor conducted as a recipient of the 2016 SCSU Undergraduate Research and Creativity Grant to determine AAE narrative skills across disciplines.

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Pictured: Taylor Bird

Graduate students Caroline Berkovich and Peyton Moss presented “Gauging Institutional Commitment to Cultural Competence for CLD Populations.” The research examined policies from national organizations in health-related fields regarding professional workforce preparation to address cultural diversity.

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Pictured Left to Right: Peyton Moss and Caroline Berkovich

“Numerous faculty colleagues approached me to share how impressed they were with the caliber of research and professionalism demonstrated by our students,” said Glenda DeJarnette, faculty mentor to the projects. “I watched as each student fielded questions and engaged attendees in very thoughtful conversations about their research. As a mentor for these projects, I extend kudos first to the students who worked diligently on the research and secondly to colleagues at Southern whose efforts have helped to shape these promising scholars.”

 

 

Operation Smile

Kelly Mabry just wants to help put a bright shiny smile on the faces of children all over the world – especially those who suffer from a cleft lip or palate.

And after assessing more than 300 children in Bolivia this fall as part of a week-long volunteer effort to help kids with a cleft, the associate professor of communication disorders at Southern has made a difference.

“I am so blessed to be able to do this. I feel like the lucky one in being able to make a difference in these kids’ lives,” Mabry said.

Mabry, an expert on craniofacial disorders, participated in Operation Smile’s outreach effort at the Hospital Japones in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Operation Smile is an international children’s medical charity that provides reconstructive surgery on kids who have facial deformities, such as cleft lip and palate, in developing countries.

For Mabry, the effort in Bolivia marked her second volunteer effort in a foreign land. Four years ago, she traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a similar mission, also coordinated by Operation Smile.

“Both nations need help, although Bolivia has a somewhat better infrastructure to provide people with medical care,” she said. “Nevertheless, even most of the poorer people in the United States would live like kings if they took their money to live in these countries. That’s the kind of poverty in which many of the poor kids are living.”
The Mansfield resident noted that 115 surgeries were performed to help those in need as part of Operation Smile’s recent effort, which included an international team of doctors and other health professionals. Mabry was responsible for prioritizing the surgical needs of the children, noting that those who had any functional difficulty in the ability to eat and drink properly were put at the top of the list for surgical interventions. She also screened the children for speech problems that were related to cleft palates.

A cleft is an opening in the lip or the roof of the mouth that occurs during early pregnancy. A child can suffer from a cleft lip or cleft palate, or both. If left untreated, this birth defect can cause serious medical complications, such as malnutrition, because of the functional difficulty in eating or drinking.

Mabry is already planning her next volunteer effort – this one coming in March in Guayaquil, Ecuador, as part of an initiative sponsored by the Global Smile Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts that also specializes in caring for people with cleft lip and palate deformities.

She created an Operation Smile Club on campus several years ago – a club that seeks to help others in the Third World with similar health problems. Thanks to a fundraiser conducted by the SCSU club, Mabry brought with her about 50 toothbrushes that she distributed to the Bolivian children.

Mabry’s passion for craniofacial disorders sparked her to pursue a Ph.D. in communication disorders, which she earned in 2002 from the University of Connecticut. She has served on craniofacial teams as a speech pathologist since 1988 and is currently a member of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Craniofacial Team in Hartford.

 

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Many young women are regularly using a gravelly, croaky speech intonation called ‘vocal fry.’

You’ve almost certainly heard the “vocal fry” inflection in conversation. You might even use it yourself. But you probably aren’t familiar with the term, nor that it has become a cultural phenomenon.

You know that creaky, gravelly voice that is most commonly used by – but not exclusive to — high school girls and young women, especially at the end of sentences. That’s vocal fry.

It may be the 21st century successor to other forms of youthful speech patterns that became commonplace during the late 20th century. Remember that totally gnarly “Valley Girl/Surfer Dude-speak” of the 1980s? But the fry might have more widespread use than that California-centric speech pattern.

It is in many ways the opposite of the “up turn” mode of speaking that makes declarative sentences sound like questions. The upturn has been frequently used in the United States – certainly during the last half century. With fry, the tone actually goes in the opposite direction, toward a lower-than-normal pitch.

Lesley Wolk, associate professor of communication disorders at Southern, was the lead investigator of a research project conducted in 2011 while she served as a faculty member at Long Island University. She, along with two of her colleagues, had found that about two-thirds of the 34 female students between the ages of 18 and 25 who participated in the study habitually used fry when speaking. The results were published in a 2012 edition of the Journal of Voice.

“It was interesting that most of them said they had no idea they were talking that way,” she says.

Wolk says she was involved in a follow-up study of 34 male students at Long Island University in 2013, but that the results were strikingly different. Very few of the young men used vocal fry.

“Although it’s not exclusively used by young women, they seem to use verbal fry more frequently than young men or older individuals,” she says.

Wolk says she first became aware of vocal fry when working with people who had vocal cord problems. The actual term was first used to describe a vocal pathology, she says.

“But I noticed that as they became teenagers, my daughters and their friends were speaking with the fry,” she says. “At the same time, as a faculty member, I would hear this speech pattern in my interactions with students, as well. So, I became interested in studying this phenomenon.”

Wolk says there are different theories as to why this is happening. “Some people believe that it originated as a way to emulate pop stars, such as Brittany Spears and Kim Kardashian, who are known to use fry when performing,” she says. “Another hypothesis is that the deeper pitch is a way for young women to be taken more seriously, or to be heard. And others say it’s used by teen girls and young women to be accepted as part of a peer group, in much the same way that slang is used by young people.”

She notes that her study shows that fry is generally used at the end of sentences, occasionally in the middle of sentences, but rarely at the beginning.

Wolk would like to pursue additional research on this subject. “My research was conducted in New York,” she says. “And I know there has been a study done in California that also showed use of vocal fry. But I would like to see if this pattern is also something we would hear frequently in the South or the Midwest.”

She also would like to examine the potential physical effects on the vocal cords from habitually using fry, as well as various socio-cultural questions. “Many people – especially older adults — find this tone unappealing,” she says. “I wonder how much it affects the perception of individuals who speak this way.”