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Student trains Tulsa Police on acquired communication disorders

Natalie Mayberry is a master’s student in The University of Tulsa’s speech-language pathology program. She recently developed and delivered a training program geared toward expanding police officers’ understanding of acquired communication disorders and strategies for interacting with people experiencing these issues.

In the United States approximately 11.5 million people live with the effects of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or stroke. These are two of the most common causes of acquired communication disorders.

Natalie Mayberry

“For my project,” Mayberry explains, “I focused on aphasia, TBI and acquired motor speech disorders. These are among the acquired communication disorders the police and other first responders most often encounter. Aphasia affects a person’s ability to understand or use spoken language, read or write. A TBI can create problems with swallowing, speaking and cognition. And acquired motor speech disorders can make it hard to communicate because of muscle weakness or trouble organizing muscle movements for speech.”

Program development

Professor Laura Wilson served as Mayberry’s research mentor. Mayberry’s program development had two main components:

  1. Meeting with a sergeant in the Tulsa Police Department to clarify officers’ existing knowledge and need for further training. She also consulted with a speech-language pathologist employed at a brain-injury rehab facility in Tulsa
  2. Organizing and leading three focus groups (25-30 people in total). These were with (i) individuals with a TBI, (ii) individuals with aphasia and (iii) individuals with mixed acquired communication disorders

“I ran the focus groups as open conversations,” says Mayberry. “I wanted to discover what people with acquired communication disorders felt were the most effective communication strategies to use when communicating with them. In addition, I wanted to learn what they would want law enforcement officers to know about their disorders and related deficits.”

Program implementation

Drawing on this research, Mayberry created a 60-minute training program. It comprised PowerPoint slides (including, for example, definitions, symptoms and communication strategies) and case-study videos with three people. The videos featured a person with a TBI; another with a TBI and an acquired motor speech disorder; and a third individual who was a caregiver of someone with aphasia.

Mayberry delivered her training program to a group of 22 Tulsa Police officers. They were members of the force’s Incident Management Team. “This was a wonderful experience,” Mayberry says. “I was really pleased by all the positive feedback I received from the participants. It is now helping me to formulate my future work.”

Trent Newman was the officer who helped organize the training session. “This program was such a good fit for law enforcement,” Newman remarks, “from the street-level patrol officer to the follow-up detective. Having the tools and knowledge Natalie provided will help us have a better pulse on our community. Being able to identify the characteristics of aphasia, TBI and acquired motor speech disorders can help law enforcement and other responders be more sympathetic to the communication challenges these disorders can present.”

Next steps

“What I heard from both the police and people with acquired communication disorders is that it’s so important to broaden awareness. My next goal, therefore, is to expand the accessibility of this training.” Mayberry is now envisioning transforming her training program into an online module. She also wants to investigate the possibility of someday having it certified as a continuing education opportunity for law enforcement officers.