By Kristy McAllister
Working as an intern at a speech-language clinic in rural Nova Scotia, Jennifer Kent-Walsh met a family who would forever change what she wanted to do with her life.
The patient was a young woman with a small child, engaged to be married. Before her wedding she went in for a routine surgery, but came out of it never able to walk or talk again.
“As a result of a medical error, she was completely paralyzed, and her only reliable motor movement was her eyes – looking up for ‘yes’ and down for ‘no,'” Kent-Walsh said. “She was desperately looking for options that would allow her to communicate and be more involved in her daughter’s upbringing.”
However, the clinic where Kent-Walsh was working did not have access to the resources to help her – neither the specialists nor the assistive technologies and devices.
That experience led Kent-Walsh to earn a doctoral degree specializing in augmentative and alternative communication. And it eventually brought her to UCF in 2003, where she founded the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST) Center to make the simple dream of communicating a reality.
The FAAST center engages directly with clients, students and patients to make meaningful scientific advances in how assistive technology services are provided. With an overarching goal of academic and clinical teaching, research and service, the center is able to help community members while training the next generation of speech-language pathologists.
Kent-Walsh’s impact and passion are why she was awarded UCF’s first award based on the new Collective Impact Strategic Plan, designed to recognize and reward great ideas that help advance the university through innovation.
The Marchioli Collective Impact Innovation Award goes to one faculty or staff member each fall and spring semester for the next three years for their innovative initiatives, programs or projects that demonstrate measurable outcomes related to at least one priority metric from the Collective Impact Strategic Plan. Innovations are judged on the ability to scale them across the institution.
Kent-Walsh will share successful strategies and best practices on April 10, during a new speaker series aimed at continuing the institutionalization of the strategic plan and encouraging innovation across campus.
Throughout the series, awardees will share their tips and strategies for identifying a niche or novel idea, building partnerships, securing funding, gaining national recognition, and documenting outcomes and impact for their successful projects or programs.
“The goal in establishing the FAAST Center at UCF was to ground all the work we do in a clinical context by working side-by-side with individuals who have significant speech impairments, as well as their families and service providers,” Kent-Walsh said. “By employing technology through evidence-based clinical interventions, we work to provide the basic human right that every person has – the right to communicate, irrespective of a person’s ability to speak.”
The award’s namesake and benefactor, Nelson Marchioli ’72, was so encouraged by the results that he decided to raise each award amount from $1,000 to $5,000.
He hopes to inspire continued recognition and celebration of innovation across the university, and motivate faculty and staff to develop and test ideas that drive new levels of innovation at UCF. Nominations for the award for Fall 2017 are being accepted now through Sept. 22.
“This award was developed to recognize faculty who have taken their ideas and driven them from conceptualization into providing innovative solutions,” said Lisa Guion Jones, Associate Provost for Strategy and Special Assistant to the President.
Kent-Walsh was recognized as the first winner during the Provost Forum on Feb. 13, where an in-person demonstration by FAAST client Frances Barona showcased the technologies and abilities the center provides, illustrating the program’s powerful impact.
Unable to speak on her own or use her hands to operate a computer, Barona was able to convey her gratitude by activating a specially designed computer with voice output through her eye movements.
“I am very happy that my dad brought me to FAAST,” Barona said. “I go to the FAAST center every week, and work very hard to get better at using my computer to speak.”
Francis’ father was equally grateful. “Me, as a father, I had a very hard time finding the resources for my daughter. But, thanks to FAAST and UCF, she is doing very well. I want to say thank you, because she has a voice now. She can talk.”
“Jennifer is the heart and soul behind FAAST,” said Michael Frumkin, dean of UCF’s College of Health and Public Affairs. “What Jennifer has actually done, in an amazing way, is integrated clinical service delivery, academic instruction for our students, clinical instruction for those students, community partnerships, and research activities in a single place that makes an enormous difference for the lives of people on a daily basis.”