Playing It Forward Whether she’s spotting the football field or serving as an association president, Gail Richard’s focus is teamwork and progress. Features
Features  |   January 01, 2017
Playing It Forward
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Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / ASHA News & Member Stories / Features
Features   |   January 01, 2017
Playing It Forward
The ASHA Leader, January 2017, Vol. 22, 54-57. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.22012017.54
The ASHA Leader, January 2017, Vol. 22, 54-57. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.22012017.54
Our 2017 ASHA president defies pigeonholing: Gail Richard is an actor/director in theater who’s also a fierce football fan. She’s a speech-language pathologist who’s focused on autism and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). And she intervenes with small children and also educates graduate students.
Oh, and she’s also been inducted into her university’s athletic hall of fame—and knew NFL quarterback Tony Romo and his family when he was a student. More on that later.
Richard started this multifaceted career working in a diagnostic center for preschool children in the late 1970s. There she enjoyed detecting the roots of their communication challenges, often related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She worked alongside teachers, intervening with these children in the classroom. That work led to 80 percent of the children entering regular education.
After a stint in the public schools in Iowa, Richard joined the faculty at Eastern Illinois University in 1981, where she’s focused on training next generations of communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professionals—and leading them. She chaired the CSD department there for 14 years, while also conducting research on ASD, central auditory processing disorder and language processing.
Now she’s ascended to the highest levels of CSD leadership, as she takes the helm of ASHA this year. So what are her plans for the year—and do they involve football? Read on.
So, has your career so far been what you expected, and why or why not?
Yes and no. Yes, in that I had a specific goal to be a professor and work with educating the next generation of professionals. No, in that I’ve had many more opportunities than I ever imagined: the leadership opportunities, the publication opportunities I’ve had with research and clinic.
I’m very much a clinician. And if I have a professional strength, it’s that I’m able to read research and translate it into application, something functional for the people in the trenches. That’s what most of my clinical publications are, and that’s turned into presentation opportunities, teaching opportunities for professionals. So my career evolved into so much more than I ever thought possible.
When did you figure out that you wanted to be an SLP—early on in your life or once you got to college?
I was in theater from the time I was a young girl, and one of the plays I was cast in was “The Miracle Worker.” So I became aware of sign language. Then I saw Marlee Matlin in “Children of a Lesser God” in New York, and there was sign language again. I also have a hearing loss: I’m deaf in one ear from encephalitis when I was 5 years old. So I was constantly being called for research studies at the University of Iowa because I had a dead ear. I was intrigued by Deaf education. That’s what drew me to the field. But once I started the classes, I preferred the speech-language component to the audiology.
After returning to Eastern Illinois and taking on the job of CSD department chair, that wasn’t enough for you—you also signed up as an NCAA faculty athletics representative. You did it for 17 years and also were on the NCAA Management Council. How did this happen? And what did you do on it?
I was a tennis player in high school and college and was always interested in athletics. Shortly after I came to Eastern, I coached the women’s tennis team for three years, in addition to being a faculty member. Once I finished my PhD and was full-time in the department, I still wanted to be involved, and I got appointed to a campus intercollegiate athletic board and was then appointed to chair that committee and serve as the NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative. It’s a presidential appointment position, where you’re the liaison between the academic side of the university and the athletic department. Your goal is to ensure a quality experience for the student athlete in both venues.
I was the first female athletic representative at EIU, and I really enjoyed it! I was reappointed by four presidents and transitioned through three different conferences. Then, within the Ohio Valley Conference, I was selected as our representative to the NCAA Management Council, which was quite an honor.
What did you do in that role?
It was primarily legislative work. We’d debate a list of resolutions and determine what would be passed—things like scholarship limits, playing times, scheduling issues. At the university level, it was making sure student athletes were having a quality academic and athletic experience, monitoring missed class time for athletes, and making sure faculty were not penalizing student athletes, that they had the opportunity to make up class assignments or tests. It all culminated in me being inducted into the Eastern Illinois University Athletic Hall of Fame three weeks ago. They felt I had made a difference as a faculty athletics rep. It was a great honor.
And you’re also director of the Autism Center at Eastern Illinois. What does this involve?
Our student training clinic in the CSD department gets a number of referrals about possible ASD diagnoses. We are downstate Illinois, so to get a diagnosis, a lot of families have to go to Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis, and they can wait 15 to 18 months. We aim to evaluate these children within the semester of the referral, so they can quickly qualify to receive intervention services and not lose key diagnostic time.
A second program I started at the center is the Students With Autism Transitional Education Program (STEP) to support our college students here with ASD who are very bright but may not have the executive function skills to manage a university campus. They can opt into STEP when they are admitted to the university. With help from graduate assistants and student volunteers, we provide study tables, academic monitoring and social skills group meetings. Our goal is for them to transition out of the program in two to three semesters.
This sounds like a model for others to emulate.
Yes, I’ve been getting phone calls about it from other universities. And we just presented on it at the ASHA Convention. We’re keeping data on the good results we’re seeing, in hopes of publishing about it.
Moving on to your presidential term: You’ve obviously had many strong CSD leadership roles. Besides being department chair, you’ve also been a president of the Illinois Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Now you’re taking the helm at ASHA—why this interest in leadership?
I believe in giving back. Nobody gets where they are in life without somebody’s help. I’m also very organized, so leadership allows me to facilitate change to improve situations for other people. I really enjoy the challenge of making a difference for people. Another aspect is the rewards that come from working with people—the network of colleagues you develop.
You mentioned in one of your president-elect statements you believe a priority is helping members orient to the changing professional landscape. Is that at the top of your agenda? If not, what is?
The theme for convention and my presidential year is encouraging professionals to consider the bigger picture—the need to get out of our silos, out of an enclosed discipline. There are several ways we need to do that. One is to make sure we are personally well-rounded and have other interests. This makes us better professionals as we interact with clients. Another is it’s important to treat the whole person—to not just look at an isolated component of hearing or speech. How is it influencing their whole life, their ability to interact with other people educationally, vocationally, occupationally?
We also need to make sure that we integrate our services with other disciplines. The interprofessional practice and education push is really positive. If I work with a child with autism who has apraxia of speech, I need the gross-motor system going. So consulting with an occupational therapist on the sensory aspects is very important.
The last piece is the global perspective: ASHA is such a leader throughout the world in our professions that other countries are looking to us to help the professions get a foothold there. China is just one of those places where there’s enormous need—one in 10 people have a communication problem—and speech-language pathology is just getting started there.
And now for the fun part: What are you passionate about?
Having lived in Illinois for 35 years, I look to a statement from Abraham Lincoln as my motto: “Whatever you do, do it well.” I’ve tried to live by that. If I make a commitment to something, I am going to do the best I can within that situation, and give it everything I have. That’s my passion: I want to make sure that I’ve made a difference and done it as well as I can.
So what about your spare time—do you have any? What are some favorite ways to spend those spare five minutes?
I’m from a large family. I have five siblings, and my husband, John, is one of eight. So family is really important. I enjoy spending holidays with them. We try to get together every five to six weeks to celebrate everybody’s birthdays and anniversaries.
Another thing most people don’t know about me is I love football. I’ve been the spotter for the Eastern Illinois football radio broadcast crew for 29 years. So I’m in the booth, watching for players who’ve made interceptions, tackles, those kinds of things. I even used to travel with the team! I used to do all the games, away and home, and now they’re very tolerant and let me show up when I’m in town.
Eastern Illinois has several big names in football: I knew Sean Payton, coach of the New Orleans Saints, when he was a student here. I also knew Tony Romo and his family. Mike Shanahan was a coach here, and Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady’s backup with the New England Patriots, is from here. It was fun to see them develop here as players.
Do you have any final thoughts to share?
I’m honored and humbled to have this opportunity. There are incredible people who have gone before me, and I’m honored to be part of this elite group. I’m excited and really looking forward to this experience.
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January 2017
Volume 22, Issue 1