When I was in elementary school, children with disabilities were sent to a special school. Educators at that time believed that it was unwise to have an inclusive classroom environment. Now it is common place to have children with significant disabilities integrated into the classroom. Despite this change in attitude, students need to be given more information about disabilities so that they can act appropriately with their peers. In How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool nickname), Patricia L. Mervine (M.A., CCC-SLP), educates children and adults about the limitation of a severely disabled child. This book is a good resource for parents and teachers who want to point out the importance of accepting diversity and being respectful to everyone. Pat successfully showcases the importance of communication.
She sent me a copy of How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool nickname) in exchange for this interview and an honest review. She will be participating in a book giveaway. See below for details.
I admire your dedication to helping people with communication disorders. What circumstances led you to this rewarding career path?
A dear uncle lost the ability to communicate, due to a progressive neurological disease. As his communication skills diminished, he seemed to also lose his humanity. Through this sad experience, I realized that most people are very ill-equipped to engage meaningfully with people who can’t respond. As a result, I sought a career in which I could to help those who are marginalized by communication disorders.
Can you briefly describe your training and background as a speech pathologist? My readers may be unfamiliar with two terms that are mentioned in your bio. What are alternative and augmentative communication and assistive technology?
I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in speech/language pathology, which includes training in anatomy and physiology and all kinds of disorders in articulation, language, voice, swallowing, stuttering, hearing loss, etc. I specialized in assistive technology; this term refers to any kind of low- or high-tech equipment that improves or replaces function that is impaired or lost because of a disabling condition. An example would be using a switch placed at one’s cheek to operate a computer, if the user cannot operate a mouse or trackpad. Alternative and augmentative communication, also known as AAC, is one type of assistive technology. This refers to all kinds of ways that people who are non-speaking can communicate. Sign language, pointing to symbols, and using speech-generating devices are all forms of AAC.
Every year, technological advances change our lives. Can you describe some of the ways that technology has helped people with communication disorders?
The field of AAC has really taken off over the past 20 years! The first speech-generating devices were large and heavy, sounded very robotic, and were very limited in the number of messages that could be expressed. They were also very expensive. Today, affordable AAC apps can be used on iPods or iPads. They have natural-sounding voices, and can be programmed to produce unlimited messages. Thanks to these improvements in technology, people with significant communication disorders are no longer voiceless and dependent on others. Stephen Hawking is the most famous example of someone who uses AAC, but there are many others like him who work, socialize, and enjoy independence, thanks to assistive technology.
Why did you decide to write How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)? What is the message that you want to convey to your readers?
As I observed with my uncle, people are often uncomfortable around a person who has significant disabilities, and that results in that person being left out of conversations and activities. I wrote the book from the point of view of the classmates of Katie, who were struggling to figure out how to be friends with Katie and include her in their activities. They had never met a child with physical and speech impairments, and could only see what she couldn’t do. Once Katie has access to AAC, they learn that Katie can do many things, and they realize that she is a lot more like them than she is different. That’s the message I wanted to convey.
Oftentimes, writers use their experiences as a template for their stories. Does your story mirror actual events from your classroom experiences?
While Katie is a fictional character, I have known and worked with many AAC users like her.
At the end of the book, you list ways that kids can show respect for people with disabilities. How do you recommend that parents and teachers use these guidelines?
The kid-friendly disability etiquette section is a great way to start a discussion about how to appropriately interact with people who have various physical or sensory impairments. Specific guidelines are given, but it all really boils down to treating people who have disabilities the way you want to be treated. By teaching these skills to children, I hope we can increase acceptance and inclusion for all people who look, behave, or do things differently from the majority.
What did you learn during the process of writing this book?
Well, I’ve authored many articles, manuals, and volumes of speech/language therapy materials, but this is my first venture into writing children’s books. I’ve learned that writing is just the beginning! Working with the illustrator and publisher, and now publicizing the book so readers will find it – these are exciting, but also daunting, tasks.
Are you planning to create additional picture books?
Actually, I just published a new book, The Mouth With a Mind of Its Own, about a little boy who has severe articulation problems. As in Katie’s story, the speech therapist is the unsung hero (do you sense a theme here?), as she teaches the boy how to “tame his wild mouth” so he can speak clearly. This is a fun little book with delightful illustrations that can be used by speech/language pathologists, teachers, and parents to explain the process of articulation therapy. Both of my books are available through my website, www.patmervine.com, and www.Amazon.com . Books purchased through my site are autographed and can be personalized on request.
How Katie Got a Voice can be utilized in primary classrooms and by parents. Can you briefly describe the supplementary guides and video that you created?
A Discussion Guide, which can also be used as writing prompts, is a free download from www.patmervine.com. Adults can use this to start a conversation about the many ways we communicate, about acceptance and inclusion, and about positive vs. hurtful nicknames. There are two short videos on my site related to this book: one about communication, and one about disability etiquette.
Can you suggest ways that parents, teachers, and administrators can effectively promote disability awareness?
People tend to shun or ridicule that which they don’t understand. We need to break down these barriers by educating children – and adults — about various disabilities. Reading my book is a start. I’ve also created a Reader’s Theater version of the story which can be performed in assemblies; kids love this type of presentation! Teachers should attend disability awareness inservices, so they can appropriately pass the information on their students. An Internet search will provide lots of great ways to give students “hands-on” experience with what it is like to have disabilities. And, of course, adults should provide whatever support is needed to children who have disabilities so they can reach their full potential, and adults should facilitate meaningful peer interactions among all students, regardless of ability or disability.
Patricia, is there anything else that you would like to tell the readers of this blog?
Although this sounds like a weighty, and maybe even depressing, topic for a children’s book, the story is really very uplifting and enjoyable to read! The characters are all typical kids –kids who collect bugs and tell jokes and play kickball– and the illustrations are charming. Kids relate so well to the story that one third grade boy stopped me in the hall after a presentation and said very seriously, “You really need to write another book. We want to know what happens to Katie!”
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, June 28 will be eligible for a book giveaway. The randomly selected winner will be sent an autographed copy of How Katie Got a Voice.