'I open up a world for kids to be able to participate in'
By Louise Kinross
I have a strong image of Laurel Robinson (standing above), a speech-language pathologist at Holland Bloorview. Laurel is always racing up the path to the hospital, or back down to the parking lot, pulling a cart on wheels behind her. The cart is packed with alphabet boards, picture displays, photos and technology she uses to create a way for children who don’t speak to communicate. Laurel, who is usually on the road driving to client's homes or schools, is always warm and bubbly. What I didn’t know about her is that she was born in Montreal, grew up in Saskatchewan, and studied in Alberta. She's also a sign-language interpreter and was a competitive synchronized skater growing up. We talked about her work at Holland Bloorview.
BLOOM: How did you get into this field?
Laurel Robinson: I started in pre-medicine. I knew I wanted to work with children. Then I watched a Monday night movie with my mom about a child who was non-verbal and used facilitated communication. It was a child who had been abused, and was in court. I didn’t know what alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) was, but I knew I wanted to do it. I did an honours in linguistics, and a major in psychology, to get into the speech and language pathology program in Alberta.
Before I began university I used to skate, but then I had surgery on my knee, so I had to stop. I decided to take some sign language courses instead, and I met the Deaf instructor, who worked at the University of Regina. I wanted to learn more, and we began meeting for lunch. I got immersed in the culture, because she introduced me to Regina’s Deaf community. While I was waiting to get into my master’s program to be a speech and language pathologist, I did the two-year American Sign Language program. The friends I’ve made through the Deaf community are my long-time friends.
BLOOM: My son primarily uses sign to communicate. It was our developmental pediatrician at Holland Bloorview who first suggested it. It’s always bothered me that sign-language instructors aren't part of the children's rehab model.
Laurel Robinson: It’s the medical model we all live in. Several years ago, I inquired here about whether we could bring on a teacher of American Sign Language, when the daycare at the Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf was closing. I felt it was a piece that was lacking for our clients, especially in the school here. I wanted to connect and make courses for adults and parents who had children with disabilities who signed.
One of the biggest myths in our own profession is that technology is the answer.
BLOOM: Yes! Our culture worships technology.
Laurel Robinson: It’s not always the most efficient way for someone to communicate. For some kids, it’s a lot of work and effort. My role is to support communication, it isn't to give a device. It might include making a communication book, or assisting the family so they can learn more sign language. Some kids who are visual learners are like a sponge to sign language.
BLOOM: What is a typical day like?
Laurel Robinson: They’re definitely not the same. Our program goes out into the community. We consult and collaborate in the classroom with school teams, and we go into families’ homes to work with family and support staff. I’m on the road a lot. Communication happens everywhere, and our hope is to create a communication system the child can take anywhere and everywhere, to communicate with everyone.
Everyone is unique, and it’s not diagnosis-specific. We look at a child’s goals—what they need to communicate about, and participate in—and their physical abilities. The system comes second. The system needs to fit the child’s needs.
For some kids who have difficulty accessing technology, communication books and displays make sense. Sometimes we train communication partners in how to ask questions in a specific way, and to look for specific signals in a response from the child—such as a vocalization, smile or eye movement.
Some devices have face-to-face vocabulary and an integrated computer system so the child can access the Internet and social media. The iPad is an example. The iPad is great, because it’s cheap and all the kids use it, so it’s socially acceptable. But it doesn’t work for most of our complex kids. Not everyone can touch a screen with their fingertip.
BLOOM: What are the joys of your job?
Laurel Robinson: I don’t consider it a job. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and which I’m extremely passionate about. It’s very rewarding to see a child communicate for the first time.
I’ll never forget the first young girl I prescribed a device for. She was non-verbal. I was training her parents on how to use the device, and she was pushing buttons on it randomly, to figure things out. Then she looked at me and put her hand up. “Do you have something to say?” I asked. She nodded her head and pushed the button with the heart on it, which said ‘I love you.’ Then she gestured to her mom and her dad. Those were her first words to her parents.
I open up a world for kids to be able to participate in actively.
BLOOM: What are the challenges?
Laurel Robinson: I think the funding and resources are always a challenge.
Sometimes the challenge is someone who has very low expectations for a child. When I’m designing something, I say more is better than less. The more they have access to, the more the child can show us what they’re capable of.
I go into great classrooms all the time. But I also go into classrooms where the expectations are extremely low. That doesn’t fly with me. I can’t change that, but I can work in the home environment. I’m someone who can’t say no, because I care. Every child has the ability to communicate, and every child is communicating, and has the ability to do more. A child not learning isn’t the child’s fault. It’s our fault for not teaching them properly, and not having the right tools in place.
BLOOM: What kind of emotions come with the job?
Laurel Robinson: It can be very demanding, very stressful. We have heavy caseloads. The solutions sometimes don’t just appear. There can be a lot of trial and error, and many of the kids we work with are very complex. Every child, to a certain degree, is unique.
BLOOM: So you’re kind of starting from scratch every time?
Laurel Robinson: Yes. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all AAC system. It takes a very long time to do a complete assessment, and to find something that can work best for a child.
We work as a team here with occupational therapists, assistive technology consultants and communicative disorders assistants. It’s very interdisciplinary, and takes a full team approach to ensure a system is suitable. Our external partners include teachers, educational assistants and school board therapists. We might have 15 people around a table discussing what our goals for a child will be.
BLOOM: Is there anything you do to manage stress?
Laurel Robinson: I like to travel, and a couple of years ago I went back to skating. I had competed nationally at synchronized skating when I was younger.
BLOOM: What exactly is synchronized skating?
Laurel Robinson: It’s like synchronized swimming on ice. I love the team aspect of it, and it allows me to clear everything from my mind. I also do spin classes on Mondays and I love theatre.
BLOOM: If you could change one thing about how we approach AAC, what would it be?
Laurel Robinson: I think it’s understanding that technology is not the answer. That’s my biggest thing. Everybody feels technology is the answer, and unless technology is in place, a child can’t be a full participant. That’s a myth.
I’d also like to see mental health initiatives become a part of what we do, so we give children access to that kind of vocabulary and information.
BLOOM: If you could change one thing in children’s rehab, what would it be?
Laurel Robinson: Today, everything comes down to funding. We’re trying to change our service delivery model, to accommodate people on wait lists. But there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on in creating communication materials. It takes a lot of time and thought and organization. It doesn’t easily fit into a numbers model.
When I started here, I felt I was able to do a better job, because I had more time to devote to each client. Now it’s ‘go, go, go,’ with an influx of referrals. It makes you have to work in a different way. As a human, and a health-care professional, it’s hard to not try to go above and beyond. That means doing things outside my 9 to 5 work. I still do those extras, because I care.
BLOOM: You and Elizabeth Baird did a No Boundaries project last year. Can you tell us about it?
Laurel Robinson: Working in Toronto, we’re in a very multicultural environment, and lots of our families have a second language in the home. But there are no multi-language communication materials. We decided to create theme displays and communication books in two languages—in English and in the language spoken by families.
We identified the five most commonly used languages by families at Holland Bloorview, and added French. So for grandparents or parents who don’t have a strong English connection, they have an opportunity to interact with the display in their own language.
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