Collaboration is key: Research in Cortical Visual Impairment and AAC

In February 2022, HMS Connect hosted its monthly Evening Education Connection session focused on Research in Cortical Visual Impairment & AAC. A continuation of the HMS ‘Lunch and Learn’ series, the monthly educational sessions explore a variety of topics related to the disability space through conversation-focused presentations from guest experts in the field. For our February session, we were joined by Tara V. McCarty, M.A., CCC-SLP, an ASHA-certified Speech Language Pathologist and doctoral candidate as well as Dr. Krista Wilkinson, PhD of Penn State University who specialize in CVI-AAC research and technology.

We recently reconnected with Tara about her expertise in the field, her experience leading our Evening Education Connection session, and her hopes for the future of the specialty. Read on to learn more about her:

Tara V. McCarty, M.A., CCC-SLP

Tell us more about yourself and your expertise in the field of Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC):
I am currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State University. I am working under the leadership of Dr. Janice Light and Dr. Krista Wilkinson to research augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) design and intervention solutions for children with communication needs and cortical visual impairment (CVI). I am also interested in paraprofessional/teaching assistant training for working with kids with communication needs and CVI. I am a member of the CVI-AAC Advisory Council that is coordinated through The Bridge School in Hillsborough, California. I was a licensed school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP) for 7 years in St. Louis, Missouri and Lititz, Pennsylvania prior to starting my PhD.

My interest and specialization in AAC began when the public school district that I worked for in Lititz started their own multiple disabilities program. I spent every Wednesday in this classroom assisting students who had communication needs requiring AAC solutions. It was the best part of my week! It was just the right mix of challenge, collaboration, creativity, and joy. I loved working with other professionals to problem solve and trouble shoot ideas for communication and student engagement in the curriculum. I loved witnessing small sparks of progress in our students when they were able to communicate using low or high tech AAC. I was intrigued and puzzled by the diagnosis CVI in so many of my students.

What brought you to this specialty? How did you know it was the right fit for you?
Students with CVI kept popping up on my caseload from my clinical fellowship year to my final year working in the public schools! These students were the ones who always kept me up at night brainstorming, questioning my choices, and wishing there was more research to back up the clinical decisions I was making. There is little to no research on AAC system design, intervention, and clinical recommendations relevant to supporting children with CVI. I knew this was the area that I wanted to focus my research and pursue further.

What keeps you inspired?
I am inspired by the parents of children with communication needs and CVI who I have met over my school-based years and through my recent research initiatives. Their self-powered journeys to find solutions for their kids to communicate is inspiring to me because they are unrelentless in their search and strength. I also have about 8 students in my mind who I worked with during my years in Lititz and St. Louis who had CVI and required AAC. When I think back to my school-based experiences, those are the students who come to mind because I wanted to do more for them than I was able to at the time.

Throughout your career so far, how has AAC and CVI research/knowledge evolved in school-based settings? What are your hopes for the future of this field?
In my experience in school-based settings, I observed and experienced a great deal of trial and error in attempts to figure out what works best for students with CVI who need AAC. I think research is informed by what is being done out in the field clinically and then in a cyclical fashion research tries to inform clinical practice. In this area right now, many things are done clinically (e.g., color contrast on high tech AAC systems, reduced symbol arrays, bubbling of letters) for students with CVI that would benefit from research to help validate the effectiveness. I am hopeful that our field can continue to seek input of stakeholders who experience CVI firsthand in themselves or in their children/students and that this input can fuel our research studies. We have so many stones left unturned when it comes to AAC for those with CVI.

Tell us a bit about your connection to HMS School!
My connection to HMS is such an interesting story and reminds me of how small the world can be. Julie Conway, Co-Director of HMS Connect and SLP, and I attended Penn State as undergraduates at the same time and only knew each other as acquaintances. During the summer of 2010, we both traveled to Florence, Italy for a two-month study abroad program and were randomly placed as roommates together in a house of 10. We’ve stayed distantly connected on social media since then. In the fall of 2021, Julie reached out to some of my faculty mentors at Penn State about research opportunities for her students with AAC needs and CVI. This brought us back in touch after all those years and now we are working together to bring research opportunities to the families of HMS!

You recently joined us for an Evening Education Connection session focused on research in CVI and AAC. What is a takeaway that you hope our listeners and community walked away with?
We were most excited about the opportunity for the session to serve as a platform for HMS staff and families to share their feedback and ideas with us about our planned future research directions. Our research is best planned for when we hear from those supporting students with CVI daily. Concerning our research that has already been carried out, we feel as though we have identified areas of importance going forward. We are beginning to look systematically at the different defining characteristics of CVI, such as difficulties with complexity and attraction to motion, and how they might interplay with AAC system design. We are excited about our next project where we will investigate whether we can use motion cues within AAC displays to attract and sustain attention.

What is something you learned or gained from leading this session?
We were blown away by the thoughtful responses and feedback from some members of the audience who supplied considerations for our upcoming study. There seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm from the HMS community about CVI research in general!

What is something about your profession or field that you wish more people knew about or were aware of?
Something a previous coworker said to me that I won’t forget is that communication is hard! We take it for granted because it comes so naturally to many of us but for our students with complex bodies, we must not forget how many skills they must consciously string together to even attempt to communicate. This is always a good reminder that I tell myself. Additionally, most speech-language pathologists are keenly aware of the importance of collaboration with other professionals to be able to begin to problem solve for students who require AAC. That aspect of collaboration is just as important in my current position as a doctoral student pursuing AAC research.

Thank you, Tara!

For more information about our Evening Education Connection series and how you can join us as a guest expert for a future session, please reach out to our HMS Connect team, Julie Conway or Teresa Giardina, at: