Julie Gamradt Featured in WSJ

Wisconsin State Journal, Business

WHAT I DO: Alternative communication specialist
Name: Julie Gamradt
Age: 46

Job: Outreach program manager/augmentative and alternative communication specialist at the Communication Aids and Systems Clinic (CASC) and Communication Development Program (CDP) at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center.

I became interested in speech-language pathology (SLP), or what’s also called “communicative disorders,” during college when my roommate was enrolled in SLP classes. I got my first real job as an SLP in a small school district in northern Minnesota. The principal of my school informed me that most of the children who would be on my caseload had severe disabilities and limited functional speaking skills. Oddly enough, in my training as an SLP, the issue of helping people who couldn’t communicate using speech barely came up – of course, this was over 25 years ago, and it’s different now. In a panic, I went to the library and found one book on adaptations for people who were “nonspeaking.”

One of the children at my first job had a dramatic effect on my life and career direction. His name was Brian. He was a 12-year-old boy who had severe cerebral palsy. Brian used a wheelchair and because of his physical disability was unable to speak. I found that Brian could communicate “yes” and “no” with the movements of his head – and that was pretty much it. I had never met anyone like him, and he changed my life.

At that time there were precious few options to offer students like him – there weren’t any fancy communication devices or adapted computers. But, even a simple communication board had a dramatic effect on his ability to participate in school and life. It was then that I was hooked into helping people who had limited speaking abilities learn to use alternative ways to communicate.

Eventually, I went on to pursue a master’s degree in communicative disorders, and now I work with people who have a wide variety of disabilities, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, cerebral palsy, autism, people who have had strokes or who have sustained brain injuries, people who have other types of developmental disabilities. . . . The people I work with have one thing in common: They aren’t able to communicate adequately through speech or handwriting alone, or they’re unable to use computers effectively due to their disability.

When I meet a person who can’t communicate well, I have them try a range of options, which often include voice output communication devices (also called speech generating devices or “talking computers”) and simple things such as boards and books that show words or pictures that they can point to for communicating ideas. I often work as a part of a team, including occupational therapists.

I’ve been able to witness significant “firsts” in the lives of people I have served . . . being able to communicate “I love you” for the first time, being able to use a device to communicate independently over the phone for the first time, or restoring abilities that were lost because of disease or accidents. It’s a profound privilege to have the opportunity to work with people in this way.

Interviewed by Amanda Kramer What I Do lets people tell what they do in their own words to make a living. It runs every Tuesday. Contact Kramer.News@gmail.com to suggest someone to feature.