Faculty member gains grant to enhance training for speech-language pathologists

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University faculty member Bill Ogletree has secured a $1.4 million federal grant to address a nationwide shortage in the number of practicing speech-language pathologists who are prepared to work with individuals with severe disabilities.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund a five-year project aimed at training graduate students and practicing speech-language pathologists to better meet the communication needs of people with severe to profound developmental disabilities and autism, said Ogletree, associate professor in WCU’s department of human services.

Ogletree said state and national surveys he conducted show a strong need for specialized training for speech-language pathologists in how to assist individuals with severe disabilities.

Survey responses from 27 speech-language pathologists working in North Carolina residential facilities and 396 public school speech-language pathologists scattered across the country indicate that significant portions of both groups do not feel adequately prepared to work with clients with severe disabilities, Ogletree said.

“I think the people who participate in this project will be particularly prepared to work in the public schools, in group homes, and in similar situations,” he said.

A dozen students seeking master’s degrees in speech-language pathology (or communication disorders, as the field also is commonly called) will be chosen to participate each year. In addition to their regular curriculum, during the fall and spring semesters the students will take part in seminars designed to introduce them to the needs of people with severe disabilities.

Also participating in those seminars will be a “cyber faculty” of nationally recognized experts in the field, who will communicate with the WCU class through distance education, Ogletree said.

During the summer, the students will undergo eight weeks of intensive courses. The program also will require 50 hours of clinical work in assessing and treating communication needs in the targeted population.

Students chosen for the year of special training will receive a $7,500 stipend, sufficient funds to cover the costs of attending WCU for one year for an in-state student, with about $3,000 left over for other expenses, Ogletree said.

An advisory board will meet in July to choose the first group of 12 students from a pool of applicants. The first group is expected to include current WCU students, and other students who will be attracted to the program from across the country.

In addition to the specialized training for students, the intensive summer courses will be open to 10 practicing speech-language pathologists from the region, who also will be eligible to receive a stipend to cover school expenses, Ogletree said. The practicing clinicians, who will be chosen through an application process, will be able to apply those academic hours to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s state certification in severe disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Education received 111 grant proposals to review from across the country. Ogletree’s project was one of 33 that the agency chose to fund.

A nationally recognized scholar in the area of communication-based services for people with severe disabilities, Ogletree has taught at Western since 1992. He has worked in the area of speech-language pathology for individuals with severe and profound disabilities since he starting conducting research in that field as part of his doctoral work at Florida State University.

Ogletree spent part of the summer of 2000 writing his grant proposal. He was sponsored in that activity through the Summer Research Fellowship, one of several internal grant programs administered by WCU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies. Ogletree said he was particularly encouraged to seek the grant by David L. Westling, the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education at WCU.