NEW ALUMNI SCHOLARSHIP CHANGES LIVES
Brittany Kucko, graduate student in the Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) program, was invited to China to present her research on assistive technologies for people with autism. The trip was expensive, and Kucko had just announced she wasn’t able to come up with the funds. She made her announcement too soon. In spring 2010, Kucko was awarded a new scholarship, the Margaret Haley Kepner Scholarship, which made it possible for Kucko to take the trip.
ALUMNA ESTABLISHES SCHOLARSHIP
Margaret “Peg” Kepner, a 1968 alumna from Tucson, Arizona, set up the scholarship for students working on certification to teach those diagnosed with autism. Kepner has a son who has autism.
“My late husband Rick and I were blessed with our son Jason in 1972. When our son was born, there were no special-ed services to help us,” Kepner said. “Jason wasn't even appropriately diagnosed until he was 15 years old. When I heard about the communication sciences program at UMD, I decided a scholarship was needed. When one child out of every 150 is diagnosed with autism, this program is needed now more than ever.”
Kucko agrees. She knew that she wanted to major in CSD because one of her cousins has Down Syndrome. “I babysat for him. I used to take him to his speech therapy sessions, and I soon became part of his learning system. That’s when I knew I wanted to help people express themselves,” Kucko said.
Kucko completed her autism certificate during her undergraduate work at UMD while working with clinical supervisor and instructor Jolene Hyppa Martin. Kucko took on an internship which required her to work with an autistic elementary school boy. He had significant communication disabilities. Kucko customized an expensive and large assistive technology (AT) device to enable the boy to express his thoughts and feelings. Using pictures and symbols, the AT device allowed the boy to communicate.
Martin recommended Kucko for the scholarship. “I was impressed with her drive and dedication to helping this young boy. She constantly went the extra mile, even to the point that she took photographs of every screen on the AT device so the next worker would know exactly where Brittany and the boy had left off. Consistency is so important with students with autism,” Martin said.
iCREATe CONFERENCE FOR ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY
Martin is joining Kucko at the i-CREATe AT conference in Shanghai, China. Kucko, now only in her first year of graduate school, will present her completed master’s thesis. The thesis is about researching how to use new devices, such as the iPod and iPad, to help those with autism and other disabilities who need assistance in expressing themselves.
“The applications on the iPad, iPod, and iPhone just came out last October,” Kucko said. “There’s lots of research on how to use them to suit the needs of people with autism.” There isn’t a negative stigma associated with new devices. “If they have an iPod, iPad or iPhone, they are cool kids,” she said. “They get some status from it.”
The new AT is affordable and portable. The voices sound more friendly and natural compared to a computer-like voice. “Using the iPod, students can tell jokes,” Kucko said. “So much of these devices are about social engagement. We want to avoid just needs and wants; we want them to be able to engage with their peers, direct people, and ask questions,” Kucko said.
SUPPORTING COMMUNICATION SCIENCE AT UMD
Peggy Kepner is extremely grateful for students like Kucko who dedicate their time to research. Kepner’s husband died when her son was four years old. Kepner raised him alone.
“That’s when special-ed kids were completely segregated. They were called retarded and feeble-minded. Raising Jason on my own set my mission in life to be an advocate for children with special needs.”
In June 2009, Kepner was elected to her second term as president of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Arizona's protection and advocacy program. She also serves as an alternate representative to the National Disabilities Rights Network. Both organizations focus on protecting and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. Though semi-retired, Peg still substitute teaches in the Tucson schools, most often in classrooms that have students with autism.
“I know I'm not the only alumna who has a family member diagnosed with a disability. This scholarship is so important, it needs publicity and more funding,” Kepner said.
Martin said, “Communication is a human right. Everybody has the right to be able to communicate.” These three women, Peg Kepner, Jolene Hyppa Martin, and Brittany Kucko agree on the importance of the UMD CSD program.
“The program wants to help people to say exactly what they want to say, when they want to say it,” said Martin. “When you look at children with autism and they look back at you, and they know you are on their side, that is when it is 1,000 percent worth it.”
Written by Cheryl Reitan