With its multifaceted mission and diverse constituency, the UConn Speech and Hearing Clinic operates at the intersection of scholarship and outreach involving language, hearing, and cognition. The Clinic serves as the clinical instruction arm of the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, and also operates as a standard outpatient facility—the only one of its kind in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—that evaluates and treats children and adults with speech, language, swallowing, and hearing disorders.
We spoke with Wendy Chase, lecturer and director of the UConn Speech and Hearing Clinic, to learn more about its scope of operations.
Q: What is the Clinic’s role within its home department and beyond?
A: The Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences must balance its research agenda with training graduate students to do a clinical job in the community. The Speech and Hearing Clinic is where students do the latter: They apply the research they cover in class, and they learn the art and science of treatment.
The Clinic is made up of eight faculty members, including five speech-language pathologists and three full-time audiologists, and an associate who works with clients who have problems with stuttering. Our team oversees the clinical education of students in our department’s three graduate programs. We have master’s students in speech-language pathology, clinical doctoral students in audiology (Au.D.), and Ph.D. candidates in speech, language, and hearing sciences who specialize in areas that may require clinical education
Q: What kinds of clients and cases do students work with at the Clinic?
A: Our clients are from the community, and we provide services to UConn students who are registered with the Center for Students with Disabilities. We also engage in outreach programs with the Greater Hartford YMCA, the Mansfield Public School System, the UConn Child Development Labs early literacy program, and others.
In these clients we see everything from birth to old age. One of the largest parts of our operation is audiology assessment and hearing aid prescription and fitting. On top of that, we see infants who have failed universal newborn screenings and very young children who are developmentally delayed; individuals with dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing; children with cranial facial anomalies like cleft palate; kids with articulation problems; people with autism; and people who have suffered from stroke, brain injury, or Parkinson’s disease. We also increasingly work with transgender populations.
Q: What services does the Clinic offer to transgender populations?
A: We do voice and communication training for people who are transitioning from male to female or female to male. One of the first steps in transitioning is to begin taking hormones. In puberty, young males’ hormones kick in, causing their larynxes to get bigger and their voices to deepen. The same thing happens when females start taking male hormones during transition, resulting in a deeper voice. But if you were born male, your larynx cannot shrink once it is a certain size. So when males start taking female hormones, everything else changes but their voice still sounds deep. We help them learn how to use a higher pitch to match their gender identity, even though they still have anatomy that works best at a male pitch.
Also, men and women communicate differently. We have different gestural styles, postures, eye contact levels, and ways that we ask questions. So our clients look at an array of behaviors and receive help on different aspects of how they present themselves. It is incredibly important for people who are transitioning into a new identity.
Q: What kinds of clinical experience do students receive?
A: Students are assigned to work with a variety of clients during their time in the Clinic. We function as a standard outpatient medical facility, which is different than most other university clinics in that we operate according to the exact same federal and state regulations as any other outpatient facility. We have to maintain HIPAA privacy and security over our medical records and train our students and staff to take these measures. Because of this, our students get an accurate representation of the clients and conditions they would see in the real world.
Our students need a lot of practice to become competent and to meet accreditation standards. Most of our graduate students spend two to three semesters in our Clinic and at least three semesters in an off-campus practicum, and some do a fourth year in a full-time externship. But it pays off: The six-month-post-graduation employment rate for our master’s speech-language pathology and Au.D. programs is currently 100 percent. The supervisors who oversee our off-campus practicums consistently say that UConn students are better prepared and perform more independently than students from other schools.
Q: What research projects or initiatives are Clinic faculty working on?
A: Some of our faculty and students are currently working on projects related to hearing screening protocols used in the Head Start community. We also just presented results about the Clinic’s adoption of the Team Based Learning teaching model in our clinical methods curriculum at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s national conference in November.
Also, for the past three years, the Clinic has supported new research by awarding small grants for pilot projects that may go on to receive funding from other sources. These grants are open to any faculty at UConn, with priority given to projects that are related to populations with communication disorders. This year we awarded $37,000 to faculty in four departments for six studies that investigate subjects related to hearing, sound perception, and the development of language and speech. One project is even screening UConn Marching Band students to check for hearing damage.
The knowledge base that is the foundation for our clinical services relates heavily to areas like human development and family studies, psychology, cognitive science, genomics, and even geriatric medicine. By developing relationships with faculty in these areas across campus, we hope to raise our profile as a vibrant member of the College and the University.