Spelling it Out for the Experts: A Tribe and George Washington University Collaboration


Imagine a world where you do not get the option to voice your opinion when decisions are made that affect your daily life. This is an unfortunate reality for many with disabilities. Now, imagine you do not have the ability to talk, so you quite literally cannot voice your opinion about these decisions… Our nonspeakers live this reality every single day. Spelling to Communicate (S2C) has provided these individuals with a reliable means to communicate their ideas, thoughts, and needs. But, how can they use their communication method to reach people such as therapists, public health practitioners, medical personnel, and government representatives? The answer: through the collaborative efforts of GKTC’s own Tribe members and the graduate students at George Washington University. (For those who may not know, Tribe is Growing Kids Therapy Center’s group of fluent young adult nonspeakers who meet weekly to discuss current and hot topics, as well as create their own magazine- In Words We Trust.)

The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University conducts a graduate-level course called The Autism Experience, led by Dr. Sean Cleary and his graduate assistant. Every spring semester, Tribe members are invited to play an important role in this course; they are the experts educating professionals in the field about their experiences and concerns for autistic individuals and/or those who are nonspeaking. Each lecture covers a specific topic; ranging from the epidemiology of autism to interpersonal relationships and anything in between, led by a professional in the field.

“Participating alongside matriculating students in The Autism Experience: A Public Health Perspective through GWU has been an empowering and rewarding experience. It has given
those of us with lived nonspeaking experience an opportunity that we are not often afforded: to inform the perspectives of and collaborate with those who will potentially influence public policy in the future. In turn, both the students and instructors have informed my advocacy moving forward. This course has been a model of the mutual respect and cooperation possible when nonspeakers are givena seat at the table.”
~ Noah Seback

This hybrid-style course offers spellers the option to meet in person and attend live lectures alongside George Washington University students, as well as the option to meet virtually from anywhere in the world. Throughout the class, spellers are actively participating in discussions, answering questions from students and professionals, and posing their own questions when appropriate. Each lecture is accompanied by a recorded zoom presentation, required and suggested readings, and a blog post where further discussions can occur between students and spellers.

“I like the GW course because nonspeakers are listened to and respected. I feel heard when I am in class. This is a unique experience because in most schools I feel judged as being dumb. Thank you Dr. Cleary for believing in me.” ~ Joel Nyland, Seattle, WA

As a recent graduate from a Master of Public Health program, I believe this is the most unique and immersive way for future and current professionals in the field to learn from those who live these experiences every day. While the spellers’ main role in this course is education, advocacy, and sharing their own personal experiences, they are also able to learn about new research and resources available that they may not have been aware of.

Each year new guest speakers and professionals are invited to present their groundbreaking research, resources, and organizations to students and spellers alike. We hope that you join us next semester when Dr. Cleary leads this course again. There is truly no better way to advocate for your community and increase the reach of S2C than by taking part in this course!

Alexa PowellAlexa Powell
An S2C Practitioner at GKTC and a recent Master of Public Health graduate with a concentration in physical activity. Schedule a session with Alexa or join one of her amazing groups by registering at!