Happy 70th Birthday, ASHFoundation

By Ellen Uffen, former editor, ASHA Leader

Although current recipients of ASHFoundation awards were not alive 70 years ago when the ASHFoundation itself rose from the dreams of its founders, the work of these young scientists and clinicians was nurtured and nourished by those who came before them as their own efforts, in turn, will nurture and advance the contributions of practitioners not yet born. Decades follow decades, time moves inexorably forward, true, but the years carry with them the achievements of the past, which support the present, and, in time, will inspire the future of the communication sciences.

So honor—albeit briefly here—must be paid the past. Was Wendell Johnson a prophet, a visionary, or just someone with a big idea, when, in 1945, as a member of the Executive Council of ASHA (then the American Speech Correction Association), he proposed the creation of a Stuttering Research Foundation (approved and instituted the following year)? Did Frank Kleffner, in the 1980s, know how far his marketing acumen and his establishment of formal giving programs would take us? 

And did Ronald Goldman, who succeeded Kleffner and who brought with him extensive business and finance skills, fully recognize how valuable his knowledge would be? Perhaps they saw the future.

That future is now. Bolstered and emboldened by the achievements of its founders, the ASHFoundation is proud of its role as a catalyst for change, in technological advances, in treatment efficacy, in research mentorship, is proud of its power to respond to the areas of need that must be addressed in the speech, language and hearing sciences, and is proud of its ability to use the best of past knowledge and prevailing ideas to create new knowledge and new ideas.

And so we're continuing to create the future. Today the ASHFoundation is giving away more money than ever: In 1946, the (newly renamed) Speech Correction Research Foundation awarded its first grant of  75; in 2016, the program disbursement of the ASHFoundation is more than 700,000. Since its inception, the ASHFoundation has awarded  7,873,670 to 2,002 doctoral and post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and leaders in the field. That's impressive.

But here's what's really impressive—the work of the people we support. Here are two examples.

Carolyn Baylor, assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington, received two ASHFoundation awards, 20 years apart, the first a Graduate Student Scholarship in1992, and the second, a much larger Clinical Research Grant in 2012. But to hear her say it, the grants go far beyond their dollar worth. 

Baylor explains her work as both qualitative—"We want to understand how we might improve our clinical services to better help people with communication disorders to meet their life participation goals"—and quantitative—"Our team has been developing a patient-reported outcome measure, the Communicative Participation Item Bank, designed to capture the extent to which communication disorders create interference and barriers to life participation for adults from their own perspective."

She intends her work to increase awareness and create accommodations for the barriers clients face and, further, "We think our research will help us examine ourselves as a profession. We all strive to help our clients, but we need to listen carefully to what our clients have to say about our professions so that we can continue to grow and evolve to meet their needs."

The ASHFoundation's support of her work holds a "special place in my professional development," says Baylor, "because it represents validation and encouragement from within the profession and ultimately instills a sense of calling for me to do the same for students and new researchers who will be coming up after me." One of that rising generation is Megan Dunn Davison, assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics and Communication Disorders at Queens College, and the recipient of a 2012 New Investigators Research Grant. Davison's research focuses on language and literacy development and disorders in preschool and school-age children.

In preschoolers she is interested in examining how parent-child and teacher-child interactions contribute to language and literacy development. In school-age children, Davison is interested in developing language-based reading and writing interventions for those at risk. Why this focus? Because "Without the ability to comprehend complex linguistic units, educational achievement and eventual employment opportunities are extremely limited," she believes.

Her ASHFoundation grant, invaluable to the advancement of Davison's work, is an impressive achievement in the eyes of university administrators who evaluate her productivity for promotion and tenure importantly by the promise of her ability to obtain future funding. One award leads to others. Further, in personal terms, Davison says, the award gave her the freedom "to think more broadly about the potential challenges and ways to mediate those challenges as I expand into future reading and writing interventions."

Although Baylor and Davison are at very different points in their careers and engaged in very different research, their work is linked by common threads—the desire to improve the lives of people with communication disorders and their gratitude to the ASHFoundation for allowing them the opportunity to create the future that they, with the greatest of caring, are making unfold.

So now, having just condensed 70 years of impressive achievements of the ASHFoundation into a few short paragraphs, let's allow ourselves to get a bit ahead of ourselves…and just imagine what we can do in the next 10 years. It will take all of us, all of our talents and our resources, to make those personal imaginings real. But, after all, why not? The accomplishments of the last 70 years were once only imaginings too.

Published, Foundation Focus, Fall/Winter 2016