Speaking Out

Gwen Nolan talks with participants in the Parkinson Speech program in an SHP classroom

People with Parkinson’s disease often struggle with weak, imprecise speech. To help them, the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences created a program that provides individual and group therapy. Under faculty direction, graduate students gain experience working with participants during the sessions. Since 2018, the nonprofit Parkinson Voice Project has provided yearly grants to carry out this work.

Most clients enter the program speaking 5 to 10 decibels below average, comparable to a quiet conversation at home, and reach normal range the first day. However, it takes about two weeks before others notice and comment on their stronger tone. Monitoring equipment and self-reporting help measure success, and positive experiences, such as clearer phone conversations, motivate participants to stick with the program.

“To see them go from quiet and flat speech to smiling and laughing is just huge,” says Gwen Nolan, a former faculty member who brought the program to MU and now works for the Parkinson Voice Project. She credits the protocol’s success to its goal-directed approach, straightforward training and the camaraderie of fellow attendees. “Participants check their neighbor for whether they’re using their best voice. They spend half the time laughing, and they just love the students.

“If someone’s having an off day, we ask them to practice simple sentences or short paragraphs when they read aloud,” Nolan says. “If they’re having a good day, they can practice delivering the Gettysburg Address.”

This story was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of MIZZOU alumni magazine.