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International Day of People with Disabilities - A Day for Learning and Empathy

Thursday, Dec. 3, was International Day of Persons with Disabilities - and possibly few understand the impact of this day more than retired teacher Kathy Rinehart-Hansen.

She has muscle tension dysphonia, a condition that changes your quality of voice in the absence of a vocal fold which allows air to flow into the lungs. Additionally, in 2008, when Rinehart-Hansen went to the doctor for her dysphonia, she was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“When I would speak, it would sound like I was a billy goat gruff or a robot,” Rinehart-Hansen said. “But then I got into the SPEAK OUT! program therapy sessions, and I do not have that anymore.”

Rinehart-Hansen is a part of SPEAK OUT! and The LOUD Crowd, therapy groups developed by the Parkinson Voice Project based in Richardson, Texas. The program combines education, individual speech therapy and ongoing group sessions to help people with Parkinson’s improve their speech and voice. The Columbia chapter of SPEAK OUT! used to meet on the University of Missouri’s campus but moved online in March due to COVID-19.

At the beginning of the year, Rinehart-Hansen was able to attend in-person speech therapy meetings. However, due to the pandemic, the internet has now become the new forum for virtual, social interaction. This has shifted speech therapy clients to virtual sessions.

“Since we know that Parkinson’s is a progressive, degenerative disease, these daily home practices are really important,” Rinehart-Hansen said. “That is why we continue to meet once a week to do the class, and then you are supposed to do the daily practices at home on your own.”

Nineteen-year-old MU student Alexis Simmerman also holds this day near and dear to her heart. She has cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder that causes her muscles to move differently.

“My tongue is a muscle, so my tongue doesn’t move like I want it to. As a child, I was very frustrated with it.”

At the beginning of the year when the pandemic began shutting down public gatherings, Simmerman’s classes transitioned to the virtual Zoom. This caused her to learn even more new ways to effectively communicate.

Despite the Zoom learning curve, Lauren Laur, a professor at MU School of Health Professions, says the online platform has worked for her and her students.

“I think we all kind of got thrown into it a little bit and had to prepare quickly at first,” she said. “Now our students have really had some time to figure out ways that they can still engage the clients, things they can do with screen sharing and being able to draw on the screen so that the clients are still really actively involved.”

While Zoom does incorporate a couple of different adaptations like a live chat option, online calls can still distort voices, making it harder for others to understand her. While Simmerman has been able to adapt to online meetings, she is still finding it hard to communicate in person with a mask.

Masks may have been helpful for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but they have also hindered lip-reading and facial cues-- all of which play a huge role in both women’s ability to hold an everyday conversation.

This is why this year's International Day of Persons with Disabilities means so much more.

“This day is important because even though we might not share our struggles, every person’s disability affects them in different ways,” said Simmerman.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities was created to help those without a disability learn how to be more compassionate and empathetic towards understanding challenges people with a disability face on a daily basis. This day is important to many, considering that 6 to 8 million individuals in the United States have a form of language impairment, according to The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Simmerman’s mom, Heather, says this special day is critical to spreading awareness.

“This day really gives people more encouragement to learn and ask questions," she said. "Whereas back in the day, it was a hush-hush thing. It only helps others understand more.”

Although COVID-19 has changed the way many communicate, it is important to continue to spread awareness, even in times of isolation and uncertainty. Though both women would prefer to meet in-person again, they will continue to adapt to online meetings until COVID-19 guidelines change.­­­­

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