In the late 1960s, seventh-grader Ann Mackie spent the day at the preschool where her mother taught. As Ann sat in the back and observed her mother lead a class of 4-year-olds in circle time, a fair-haired girl with delicate features caught her attention.
The girl who caught her eye, Catherine Ann, was not shy about expressing herself. But unlike the other children, she was profoundly deaf.
Her hearing aid, which she wore under her dress, consisted of a box draped around her neck like a huge necklace with wires plugged into her ears.
As Ann watched with curiosity, Catherine Ann was asked to leave circle time for repeatedly — and blatantly — pinching one of her classmates. Mrs. Mackie reminded her of the class rules and consequences for not following them.
Catherine Ann would have none of it. The precocious little girl turned off her hearing aid, squeezed her eyes shut and presented the most beguiling smile Ann had ever seen.
Ann was smitten. “Here was a 4-year-old who could not hear a horn honk or an airplane engine overhead, yet she had the wherewithal to captivate an entire classroom and take control of the situation,” Ann recalled. “At that moment, I decided I had to learn more about it.”
Intending to become a teacher to the deaf, she started reading biographies of people from the deaf community, such as Helen Keller and Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, before moving on to textbooks. The library explorations led her to speech language pathology, the study of the disordered aspects of speech, language and hearing.
Fast-forward to present day, where Ann (now Hillis) has been director of the Speech and Hearing Center in the College of Communication at the university since 1999 — a journey that began with the encounter with Catherine Ann.
Hillis oversees the clinic that helps individuals with speech, language and hearing disorders. Under the guidance of clinical faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, graduate students at the clinic assess and treat individuals from the community with a wide variety of hearing and speech impairments.
After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech pathology, as well as a master’s degree in business administration, Hillis spent nearly 20 years leading cutting-edge speech pathology programs at health care centers in Texas and Florida.
Craig Champlin, chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, remembers recruiting Hillis.
“We were looking for someone with an uncommon skill set,” Champlin said. “We needed to hire an individual with a speech-language pathology background, but we also wanted someone who could balance the needs of the graduate students, clients and research faculty with the financial obligations of the center.”
With only four full-time staff clinicians at the center, Hillis serves as the speech-language pathology pinch hitter, enabling clients to keep their appointments when a staff clinician is absent. Most of the center’s clients come for hearing assessments with many of them returning for hearing aid fittings conducted by graduate students.
The center serves as a channel to identify and recruit speech- or hearing-impaired individuals to participate in academic research projects geared toward developing evidence-based practices for better hearing screening tests and stuttering intervention.
“Our faculty members are continually making new discoveries and providing evidence for what does and does not work in the way of diagnostic and treatment methods,” Hillis said. “Our students benefit by learning these new techniques before they’re out in the field, and our clients benefit through early intervention and preventative treatment.”
In addition to serving clients at the center, clinical faculty and graduate students serve a larger client base out in the community. Hillis sends a team of second-year graduate students to hospitals, preschools, health care centers and nursing facilities to administer speech, language and hearing assessments.
Students benefit from Hillis’ connections to the medical industry, which typically provides the most sought-after internship experiences for second-year graduate students.
“I enjoy the creativity the center enables,” she said. “Whether it’s in how we create a clinical training program for students, the way we design a treatment protocol for a client, how we develop new processes to meet industry care standards, or the way we manage the finances while delivering the best possible care.”
May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. This annual event provides opportunities to raise awareness about communication disorders and to promote treatment that can improve the quality of life for those who experience problems with speaking, understanding or hearing.
— American Speech-Language-Hearing Association