WMU News

NIH funds research on communication disorders

June 21, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- An internationally recognized researcher at Western Michigan University has been awarded a $780,000 grant to help those with serious communication disorders communicate more effectively.

The grant has been awarded to Dr. Jan Bedrosian, professor of the speech pathology and audiology, from the National Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Bedrosian, an internationally recognized researcher in augmentative and alternative communication--AAC--is using the grant to fund four experiments over a three-year period. Each of these experiments is designed to explore a portion of a theory of disordered communication, which Bedrosian has developed over the past four years with colleagues in Kansas and Delaware.

"The theory attempts to explain and predict events associated with flawed communication," Bedrosian says.

AAC is a branch of speech-language pathology that addresses the communication needs of people with severe speech impairments, such as those with cerebral palsy. Since these people are unable, for the most part, to communicate through speech, they must rely on other methods to express themselves to others. One such method involves the use of a special communication computer or device with voice output technology. The devices become the voice of its users, allowing them to speak for themselves.

"Everyone has the basic human right to communicate," Bedrosian says. "Being able to communicate independently fosters one's acceptance and inclusion in society."

Although AAC users find some liberation through communication devices, they still face communication problems, especially when they are out in public and have to deal with people who are unfamiliar with their method of communication.

"When using these computers, particularly those with software programs that support the storage and access of large chunks of text, the person must try to determine his or her communicative messages for a given situation," Bedrosian explains. "The messages are then typed in and stored for later access."

But it's impossible to anticipate all communication needs. As a result, someone might find himself or herself in a busy public situation, such as a store, in which there is not a perfect "fit" between the pre-stored message and the situation for which it was intended.

"When this happens, the individual could choose to use the message anyway since that would be the fastest thing to do, even though it might be confusing to the recipient, or choose to take the time to edit the message accordingly, slowing down the interaction considerably," Bedrosian says. "There is no perfect choice. Each choice is flawed somehow."

Bedrosian describes spoken communication as a very spontaneous and fluid behavior that follows a variety of subconscious rules in order to be considered polite conversation. People who use a communication device cannot, however, maintain a conversation in the same fluent fashion. They must decide which conversational rules to observe and which to violate. It is the outcome of these rule violations, specifically with respect to the effect on attitudes of public service providers that Bedrosian and her colleagues are investigating.

"We are particularly interested in the attitudes of retail sales clerks towards people who use the devices and the communication choices they make," she says.

Bedrosian currently is conducting the second of four experiments. Each involves major efforts in recruiting retailers in the area as research participants.

"Interactions with these individuals have been very informative," she says. "None of them has ever talked with a person who uses a communication device, so we will really be able to find out what their initial impressions are."

The theory Bedrosian and her colleagues are testing seeks to define which conversational rules are most important and which are less so. What they learn from these experiments will help not only those who use communication devices, but also the companies that design the technology for these devices, as well as the speech-language pathologists who advise people in the use of these systems.

For more information, contact Dr. Jan Bedrosian at (269) 387-8061.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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