Alumna Brings Personal Perspective to Research on Speech Impairments

Posted: November 16, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Shernita Rochelle Parker

We have so many different ways of communicating. We use gestures, facial expressions, body language and the written word. But, more often than not, we rely on the spoken word to communicate our thoughts, ideas, agreement or disagreement with others. When we cannot rely on speaking to others, where do we turn?

Yoosun Chung, BA ’94 and PhD ’04, who is a research assistant professor in Mason’s Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities (KIHd), was interested in answering this question for both academic and personal reasons.

More than two million people in the United States are not able to communicate using speech or have a severe communication problem. For Chung, it was essential to look more deeply into how one overcomes the limitations that speech impairments can impose and explore the tools that help surmount those limitations.

The fact that Chung has a speech impairment and uses Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) made her research even more compelling. She brings a personal perspective to the problems and challenges people with limited speech communication face.

However, Chung’s speech impairment has done little to deter her or limit her accomplishments.

Born in Seoul, Korea, Chung was hospitalized for severe jaundice as a baby. She recovered after a few days, but complications left her with brain damage that affects her speech and mobility. Her condition went undiagnosed for a long time, although her parents and doctors were seriously concerned when she was not able to walk or talk by age 2.

Chung was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors recommended that her parents enroll her at a special preschool at the Rehabilitation Hospital at Yonsei University Medical Center. She stayed at the school during the week and spent weekends at home with her parents. Throughout the period, her parents remained dedicated to providing her the most inclusive experience possible.

Yoosun Chung and mother
Yoosun Chung with her mother when she received her award from the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication last summer.

“Traditionally, and even now, some Koreans look at individuals with disabilities strangely and even negatively,” Chung notes. “Over the years, the perspective regarding individuals with disabilities in Korea has changed greatly. However, when I was young, many parents used to hide their children with disabilities. My parents were very different. My parents brought me anywhere and everywhere they went.”

When she was 8 years old, Chung’s parents pushed to have her attend a general elementary school instead of a special school. At that time in the 1970s, there was no notion of inclusion, yet her parents believed in her potential and ability to succeed.

In fact, despite the anxiety and shame that she often endured because she was not able to express herself like other students, Chung worked hard and met the challenges of her speech impairment head on, succeeding academically through high school. But she didn’t stop there.

In 1990, Chung came to the United States to study, first tackling learning English at George Mason’s English Language Institute. She then went on to study computer science, earning her bachelor’s degree from Mason in 1994 and her master of engineering in computer science from Cornell University in 1996.

Throughout her undergraduate and graduate academic experience, too often she “simply closed her mouth,” Chung says, relying on e-mail to communicate with professors when she had questions.

Slowly, after learning more about AAC systems, Chung incorporated writing or spelling out difficult words as one of her alternate communication methods. These methods expanded her ability to communicate and sparked her interest in pursuing a doctoral degree.

After entering the program in assistive technology in Mason’s Special Education Program of the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), Chung began to use her communication device. It opened up a whole new world to her. With a laptop computer, she is able to type what she wants to say, and then the device will speak the words for her. For so long, Chung had dreamed that she would have access to a device that would allow her to express herself more readily.

Now, Chung teaches courses with the assistance of her AAC device. Students in the Special Education Program consistently comment that “having a teacher with a disability is a great opportunity to learn.” And none have found communication with her to be an issue.

Michael Behrmann, KIHd director and coordinator of the Special Education Program, comments, “Yoosun is a wonderful role model for what people that have a disability are able to achieve in their lives.”

Recently, Chung was featured in a Korean network documentary, and in August, she received the 2006 Words+/ISAAC Outstanding Consumer Lecture Award. ISAAC, the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, bestows this honor upon an individual who is an AAC user, at the same time recognizing the individual’s talent, life perspective or individual scholarly endeavors and expertise.

While humbled by this honor, Chung talks openly about how this and her many other accomplishments would not be possible without a loving and supportive family – her parents, husband of 11 years, 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.

Chung says she sometimes has a hard time believing just how perfect her life is in many ways. There are still challenges — helping her children understand her disability, preparing them to be able to explain it to other children who may have questions and fully participating in her children’s lives. But Chung tackles those challenges with the same determination and perseverance as all the others she has come to face.

This article originally appeared in CEHD Magazine in a slightly different format.

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