An Adventurer and a Leader Elise Davis-McFarland’s concern for people who are overlooked and underserved has driven her career—and will steer her ASHA presidency. Features
Features  |   January 01, 2018
An Adventurer and a Leader
Author Notes
  • Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.
    Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.×
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ASHA News & Member Stories / Language Disorders / Features
Features   |   January 01, 2018
An Adventurer and a Leader
The ASHA Leader, January 2018, Vol. 23, 56-61. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.23012018.56
The ASHA Leader, January 2018, Vol. 23, 56-61. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.23012018.56
Our new ASHA president defies the traditional speech-language pathologist mold.
Elise Davis-McFarland has been a research director at The Citadel. A Medicaid commissioner for South Carolina. A vice president for public affairs at the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. And a Rotary Fellow helping children with HIV/AIDs in South Africa.
But throughout it all, she’s been an SLP first and foremost. For example, she developed the interdisciplinary Communication Sciences and Disorders Graduate Program at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). And she’s held a string of leadership positions at ASHA, culminating in the highest possible as ASHA president this year.
So what does she hope to achieve as the association’s top guide—and will her unusual career path play a role? Read on.
You have quite the varied career. Has it been what you expected so far?
Yes and no. I expected that I would have a career in higher education, that I’d be teaching and doing research. And although I’ve been able to do that, there’ve been times I was doing something somewhat different. But everything I’ve done certainly prepared me for where I am now.
Did you know you wanted to be an SLP from an early age, or did it happen later because of a particular incident?
It happened later. When I was in the 11th grade I went to a health conference for high school students. There was a session on speech-language pathology (then speech therapy), and the speaker was a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) who’d had a laryngectomy. And I thought, my goodness, this is amazing! If I could be in a profession where I could support people with severe communication issues, that would really be a contribution. I always knew I wanted to work with children, but didn’t necessarily want to be a teacher. Now I realized I could do exceptionally meaningful work with children. So I ended up going to UNCG for speech-language pathology, and she was one of my instructors.
And you’ve done so much within speech-language pathology, including work in speech and language development in infants and children with HIV/AIDS. Why this focus?
When I was at MUSC, I provided clinical services at the pediatric AIDS clinic once a week. The parents, usually mothers, were HIV-positive and were there to determine whether their children were HIV-positive. If they were, we saw the children monthly. I became interested in how these children were developing, and the extent to which HIV influenced that development. I was able to do research and clinical practice with the families and write about my research findings.
Then I was fortunate to get a Rotary Faculty Fellowship to teach at the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA, now Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University). That allowed me to examine cultural and environmental issues related to HIV/AIDS in that country, which has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.
Tell us more about your HIV/AIDS work in South Africa.
I was teaching MEDUNSA students who were becoming SLPs and helping the department prepare for an initial accreditation visit. But I also had an opportunity to go to Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, which, as the largest hospital in southern Africa, has a large pediatric HIV unit. I was fascinated not just by the culture, but also by physicians’ and SLPs’ approach to working with children with HIV and AIDS—the differences between practice at MUSC and Baragwanath.
Doctors at MUSC were doing everything possible to make sure these children had the best opportunities for growth and development through medications and parent education. At Baragwanath, they hadn’t gotten there yet. There was more emphasis on adults than children. But that was also when medications were not being made readily available because of the government position on HIV/AIDS. Now there is more habilitation and rehabilitation. And medications are more widely available. In fact, now some of the most interesting research in pediatric HIV is being done in South Africa.
Turning to your multicultural work in language assessment and literacy development, what have been some highlights?
I wanted to get a good measure of—a realistic as possible insight into—speech and language in African-American children. Even then we knew that standardized tests don’t always give us the truest picture of a child in terms of differentiating between language disorder and dialect or language difference. It was and still is a quest to provide the best, most realistic assessment so that we properly distinguish the children who need treatment from those who don’t.

Standardized tests don’t always give us the truest picture of a child in terms of differentiating between language disorder and dialect or language difference. It was and still is a quest to provide the best, most realistic assessment so that we properly distinguish the children who need treatment from those who don’t.

Do you think we’ve improved at this?
I think so. Dynamic assessment has made a real impact because it allows you to look at the child’s potential for development. It tells us a lot about what we need to do and how to do it. The fact that some of the standardized test-makers have expanded their standardization population has made a difference. Our attitude has changed, too. We know more about impairment versus difference. Also, we go into assessments with more information than we did years ago.
Moving on to other career moves. You’ve had some off-the-beaten-track jobs, such as VP of governmental affairs for the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. How did that happen?
After I finished my doctoral program, I accepted a position as assistant professor at the University of Houston’s speech-language pathology department, then I married and came to Charleston. To my surprise, there was no university program for speech-language pathology. So Plan B was to do something else, which first was director of an educational opportunity center—a federally funded program to get high school students into college.
Then, as vice president for public policy at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, I staffed committees (including the education and transportation committees) and was also a lobbyist at the state legislature. That was my opportunity to learn about the development of public policy, and how important it is to have a seat at the table where policy is made.
And then you moved to doing institutional research at The Citadel?
Yes, that was where I got my real education in strategic planning. I believe in bottom-up planning, and at a military college … well, it’s top-down. But it was a valuable experience. And after that, I was glad to get back into the world of speech-language pathology at MUSC and then on to a position as vice president of Trident Technical College.

The interstate licensure compact is important because it will make practice across states available to more of our members.

Obviously you developed extensive leadership experience in your varied professional positions and at the same time were active in leadership through ASHA. What has been a personally significant ASHA leadership experience for you?
I was coordinator for Special Interest Group 14 (Cultural and Linguistic Diversity) some time ago and really enjoyed it. That was when I was able to facilitate the SIG getting continuing education sponsorship authority from ASHA, which was a big step. Being SIG coordinator was a lot of work but a great opportunity to work with like-minded colleagues.
I enjoyed the Honors Committee. It was uplifting to honor colleagues who had made such significant contributions to our professions. The Ethics Committee required a lot of reading, listening and deliberations, and sometimes soul-searching, but in the end I was gratified that we gave each case very careful consideration and made the best decisions possible.
How were you able to fit in this ASHA leadership work on top of your day-job responsibilities?
I’ve always wanted to do things that would help me operate across different arenas. One thing enriches the other. For example, when I was at MUSC, my ASHA work helped me provide better leadership for the program because it allowed me to see what other programs were doing. I could bring the best of what I saw back to my program. It also allowed me to build my own professional and personal network. It’s a beneficial cross-fertilization.
Getting down to your presidential agenda. What do you want to accomplish this year?
There are several issues I hope we can make progress on this year. The interstate licensure compact is important because it will make practice and telepractice across states available to and easier for more of our members. I also want to see good progress with our public policy agenda. Government policy cuts across all aspects of our professions: schools and private practice as well as health care. We will be moving forward on credentialing of speech-language pathology and audiology assistants. That will raise assistants’ status professionally and may lead to reimbursement for their services, which is good for audiologists and SLPs who supervise them.
I am also hoping to see more emphasis on ASHA’s and our members’ initiatives in the international arena. I think we can expand our support of the development of culturally relevant education and services in underserved regions. I also want us to realize our goal of bringing more member diversity to ASHA committees and boards. Our association is strengthened when we have many voices, opinions and perspectives represented and considered.
I’m also excited about ASHA’s emphasis on interprofessional education and practice. Our interdisciplinary CSD curriculum at MUSC was an excellent preparation for our graduates, whether they practiced in schools, health care settings or private practice.
I think the ASHFoundation provides great support and encouragement to the scholarship and research that push our professions forward, and I am excited about its continued growth.
These accomplishments are dependent on the Board working with ASHA’s excellent staff to move the association forward. We will welcome seven new members to the Board this year. We are a strong team, and I know we will work well together.

I also want us to realize our goal of bringing more member diversity to ASHA committees and boards. Our association is strengthened when we have many voices, opinions and perspectives represented and considered.

Rolling back to look at what’s going on in education and health care, what is most important for audiologists and SLPs to think about and act on right now?
We are fortunate to have a strong government affairs staff to work on these issues. Our school-based audiologists and SLPs are concerned about reimbursement, and whether the children on their caseloads are going to be eligible for Medicaid. This is true for all practice settings. Everyone is looking at Medicaid and health care reimbursement generally. I think we all hoped that by now we’d have a better idea of what, if any, changes are going to be made. We will just have to wait and see what decisions are made.
It’s certainly a fluid situation. What do you recommend members do in terms of policy?
It’s important that members contact policymakers and explain the value of what we do. For example, in two states legislators tried to get rid of licensure for audiologists and SLPs. Thanks to the efforts of ASHA members and state associations, that did not happen. But it could have been very detrimental if it had. So it’s important that legislators understand our work and our needs!
So what are you passionate about?
I’m interested in further development of audiology and speech-language pathology services elsewhere in the world where there have been few or no services, especially in Africa and Asia. In addition to my work in South Africa, I’ve visited East Africa and China and am interested in what it takes to bring services to people there—in terms of education and the different cultural perspective in those places.
Does this stem from a concern about access to support for communication disorders?
It does. And also in terms of fulfillment of human potential. As I’ve traveled, I’ve seen instances in which children, and even adults, could have been able to do more and go further with these services—personally and in their professional lives.
Moving on to the fun part. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to travel. I’ve been to all 50 states and six continents! I love seeing how people truly live, and how culture affects their lives. I hope to travel much more in the future. I found the Chinese people particularly interesting in terms of how quickly their lives have been transformed by economic development. I was also interested in some of their perspectives on democracy, and whether they think it’s necessary, or even good.
How about what you like to do in your personal life?
I, along with a group of women from my church, have a program—Social Butterflies—for sixth-grade girls in a local middle school. We meet with them every week to help them develop their personal and academic potential as they begin thinking more purposefully about themselves as adults. We expose them to community leaders and people in nontraditional careers—to get them thinking about their own possibilities for a positive future.
And you have children and grandchildren, right?
We have a son and a daughter and two grandchildren. Our grandson is 2, and our granddaughter is 7 months—great ages, and it’s been amazing watching them grow and develop. I spend as much time with them as I can because they grow up so fast! I’m enjoying each month with them. And my husband is very supportive of my year as president. He understands the time required, and embraces my opportunity. We’re very much together on it.
Any final thoughts on the year ahead?
I’m excited about working with the Board to continue the association’s work. ASHA is the strongest, most well-managed professional association I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with several. So I want us to continue to strengthen the association and our services to our members.
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January 2018
Volume 23, Issue 1