A five-year $3 million clinical trial grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), widely considered the gold standard for biomedical and public health research funding, tells us something unique is again happening at the FAAST Center and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Lab at UCF.

“Both the scientific findings and, more importantly, the feedback from the families of children using AAC and their service-providers, have shown us the incredible power assistive technology can hold for children with significant speech impairments when combined with customized language therapy,” says Jennifer Kent-Walsh, founder of UCF’s Assistive Technology Center and a Pegasus Professor in the College of Health Professions and Sciences. “This new round of NIH funding means we can expand our work to provide clinicians with more evidence-based assessment and intervention options to help children develop language skills through use of AAC technologies.”

The NIH can clearly see from data that children with significant speech impairments and genetic conditions like Down syndrome and cerebral palsy are communicating at higher levels. They can also look at the flurry of activity and engagement among the children, families, service providers, UCF students, community clinicians, caregivers and researchers at the center. Thousands of people have come for workshops, individualized training and therapy, and to borrow assistive technologies to help those struggling with language development, communication and a wide range of other needs.

“We are fortunate to have had support at UCF to align the critical stakeholder groups required to simultaneously advance science and practice — community, clinical, academic, research, industry, and the next generation of speech-language pathologists and related service-providers,” Kent-Walsh says. “Two key aspects of the study this new funding will support relate to the critical need to design interventions that are implementable in real-life contexts for clinicians and accessible to as many children as possible for sustained periods of time in community settings.”

Kent-Walsh argues that engineering great technologies and even designing effective interventions can still miss the mark of meaningful scientific advancement in healthcare without implementation. This new funding will allow Kent-Walsh’s team to focus on validating interventions that are designed with and for clinicians supporting children using assistive technology to communicate.  The fact that the NIH is funding this work is a sign of the significant and practical progress that’s been two decades in the making.

Kent-Walsh is the cornerstone of this classic from-the-ground-up story. She came to UCF as an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders in 2003. As a teacher and speech-language pathologist in Canada and England, she had witnessed first-hand the life setbacks that speech and language disorders can cause for children. At UCF, she would have the freedom to explore meaningful solutions, including technology-based ideas, to address these challenges. “The university always had an openness for innovation – particularly in areas relating to engineering and technology,” she says. “For me, it was exciting to have the opportunity to develop a program of assistive technology research in an environment already primed for technology development and with an emerging focus on health and wellness.”

“Communication is a basic human right which can, and must, be supported for all.”

During her time at UCF, Kent-Walsh has secured millions of dollars in funding from local, state and federal sources to expand research and optimize assistive technology service-delivery. In 2023, after being named a Pegasus Professor, Kent-Walsh saw a banner hung in her honor with the words that have driven her from day one:

“Communication is a basic human right which can, and must, be supported for all,” Kent-Walsh says.

When any of this is brought up — the research, the scientific findings and the successes — Kent-Walsh shifts the focus to the power of people working together.

“We have been able to learn and accomplish as much as we have to this point through true team science,” she says.

Cathy Binger at the University of New Mexico (UNM) has been Kent-Walsh’s primary research collaborator for the past two decades and she serves as the other principal investigator for this new grant. Their decades long partnership has afforded invaluable cross-institutional learning and funded training experiences for both UCF and UNM students through clinical trial investigations like this one. Professor John Heilman, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, recently joined the research team as a language measurement expert. Other key team members include Professor Debbie Hahs-Vaughn from UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education, who serves as biostatistician for the project, and associate clinical instructor Nancy Harrington who serves as project director for this multi-site clinical trial investigation.  And then there is the project team — with additional clinical and academic connections for the project facilitated by the broader village of collaborators in the FAAST Center and AAC Lab, including associate clinical instructor Carolyn Buchanan and clinical instructor Punam Desormes.

“When we involve students and our community at large, the network of advocates expands to ensure that any child can gain access to assistive technology services,” Kent-Walsh says. “They know, and NIH knows, that there is a growing body of findings indicating that the use of AAC technologies, combined with tailored language intervention, is where the magic happens.”

The team’s overall goal is to reach as many children as possible in as many healthcare settings as possible, and ultimately, to improve lives.