by Angela Turk
While in college, Kathryn Heller volunteered at an after-school program for students with physical and multiple disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy. Now a registered nurse and professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education, she didn't know much about special education at that time, but to her, the educational programming seemed lacking and she felt more could be done. That expereince stayed with her, even as she pursued a career as a critical care nurse.
Q: What made you decide to leave critical care nursing and pursue a career in the education field?
A: Nurses often find new and novel ways to use their training and expertise. I felt that I could have more of an effect by combining my nursing skills with special education and drawing on both disciplines. I wanted to educate others about children with physical and health disabilities and research effective methods of addressing children's educational and health needs when physical disabilities are present.
Q: You coordinate the physical and health disabilities program at GSU. What does that entail?
A: The College of Education has the only physical and health disabilities master's program in Georgia. As coordinator of the program, I am responsible for adding and updating course content on a regular basis. I supervise most of my own practicum students, which gives me the ability to see how well my students are able to implement what they have learned from their graduate classes. I also advise all of the students in the physical and health disabilities program and help them learn the content, such as assistive technology and the physical and health management of students with disabilities, that they need to be successful.
Q: Tell us about your work as director of the Georgia Sensory Assistance Project.
A: The Georgia Sensory Assistance Project is a federally funded project that provides technical assistance from birth through 21 years for children and youth with deafblindness. I am blessed with a very talented staff, and together we provide statewide assistance that includes such activities as school consultation, family networking and support, home-based technical assistance, summer institutes and training, support for siblings, and interagency collaboration activies, just to name a few.
Q: Why is it so important for students to learn about assistive technology?
A: Assistive technology is critical for students with physical disabilities to increase their independence by enabling them to perform tasks that they would be unable to do otherwise. Teachers working with this population of students need to know how assistive technology can be used to increase their academic performance at school and their independence across environments. In addition to their courses, GSU students have an opportunity to gain hands-on experiences working with technology such as alternate keyboard and communication devices, specialized software programs and self-feeding devices, in an assistive techology lab I started years ago in the COE.
Q: What other research projects are you working on?
A: My primary research interest is in providing effective educational instruction and health care for students with physical or health disabilities. Currently, I am examining effective literacy instruction and assistive technology issues for students with physical disabilities. I am also starting on a new project with some colleagues on examining supports for teachers who have children with degenerative diseases or terminal illness.
Q: What's the best part of your job?
A: Seeing my graduate students effectively address their students' educational and health care needs and seeing the difference they are making in the lives of their students.
This story was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.