‘You are Lifting People’s Voices and Lives,’ StoryCorps Creator Tells Conference Attendees

family photos“Every life matters equally and infinitely.”

That lesson is one that Dave Isay has learned in the process of compiling more than 60,000 conversation through “StoryCorps,” the project that collects recordings of conversations between everyday people. The author, documentarian and StoryCorps founder opened the 2015 ASHA Schools Conference and Health Care Business Institute by sharing some of those stories in a joint plenary session.

The project began as a single recording booth in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and now includes mobile audio booths that travel throughout the country and a recently launched mobile app. Millions of listeners tune in weekly to hear them on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The premise is simple: Come into the booth with someone you care about and, with the assistance of a facilitator, conduct a 40-minute interview.

What often ensues, Isay says, is a discussion centered on “If I had 40 minutes to live, what would I tell the person I love?”

He shared recordings of an older couple, both before and after the husband was diagnosed with cancer. The story of a renowned surgeon, who reveres his late father—a janitor and chauffeur—and who says, “I hope I can be just half the man he was.” A conversation between a woman and the man who, at 16, murdered her son, about forgiveness and the deep relationship they have since forged. The actor who stutters and who concludes, “Who would I be if I didn’t stutter? I would be a completely different person.”

A man with Alzheimer’s disease is interviewed by his two daughters. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I have a family I love and they’re loving people. That’s the biggest thing you can leave.” And a daughter responds, “You created such love. We want to be around you.”

A mother who has developmental disabilities tells her interviewer—her teenage daughter—“I am thankful because you love me and understand me.” A mother asks her 10-year-old son—who at 4 asked Santa to allow his younger sister to hear—about growing up with a sister who is deaf. “Well, I get to meet a lot of hearing-impaired people I wouldn’t have gotten to know,” he responds. “And when kids make fun of her, I tell her they’re just jealous because she gets to do cool things like learn sign language and stuff.”

The recordings often evoke deep emotions, as evidenced by the number of session attendees reaching into pockets and purses for tissues.

This “collection of the wisdom of humanity,” as Isay describes it, is testament to the work of communication sciences and disorders professionals. “You work very hard,” he told the audience, “and you love your work. You are lifting people’s voices and lives. You help give them voice, love and hope.”

Speech-language pathologists are “so much about what we do at StoryCorps,” Isay said. “We shake people on the shoulder and say, ‘This is what’s important.’”

Isay concluded with a favorite quote of Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s television host, but attributed to a Philadelphia nun: “It’s impossible not to love someone whose story you’ve heard.”

“We love you for the work you do,” Isay told the audience. “Keep loving and listening.”

Carol Polovoy is managing editor of The ASHA Leader.

Clinical Aphorisms: Thoughts While Shaving


  1. Evidence-based practice must consider the clinical intangibles: Performance does not guarantee competency.
  1. Do not be afraid of silence—it is your best friend!
  1. The most potent clinical interventions are those that empower the family.
  1. Family-centered is just that: seeing the family as our client.
  1. Not doing is doing: More often than not, it is the most powerful doing.
  1. The most important clinical tool is the clinician: Every so often the “tool” needs a checkup and re-calibration.
  1. Having dependent clients benefits no one.
  1. Covert help is the best help: Miracle workers need not apply.
  1. The clinician’s need to be needed—in conjunction with perceived client helplessness—is a clinical death dance.
  1. Clinical success can best be measured by the degree that the client takes ownership of the disorder.
  1. Operate on the fringes of your competency: If you aren’t a bit scared, you aren’t learning anything.
  1. Communication is best accomplished when we engage both feeling and cognition.
  1. View the client through the eyes of compassion; when you do so, there is no blame.
  1. Listening to the client is often the only thing needed.
  1. Embracing our pain—by expressing it—is often the first step in healing.
  1. The greatest gift we can give our clients is a support group: It’s a powerful healing vehicle.
  1. The difficult client is often our best teacher.
  1. It’s only a mistake if you do it twice—competency is born of mistakes.
  1. Always remember what the Dali Lama said: “Everybody is seeking happiness.” It helps to get through the day.


David M. Luterman, AuD, EdD, is professor emeritus at Emerson College, author of many books on counseling people with hearing impairment and other communication disorders, and director of the Thayer Lindsley Program for Deaf and Hard of hearing Infants and Toddlers at Emerson College. dmluterman@aol.com



American Pharoah: Triple Crown Winner Uses Ear Plugs!

American Pharoah WEB May 2015 Barbara Livingston

American Pharoah sprinted to win the first Triple Crown in 37 years. His trainer, Bob Baffert selected brown ear plugs—rather than the typical white cotton used with other horses—that better match the bay colt’s coloring. Many race horses wear ear plugs.

Horses have a wider range of hearing sensitivity than humans. We typically hear from 20 Hertz out to 20,000 Hertz. Horses hear out to 35,000 Hertz. This means they hear a lot of sound not perceived by human ears.

Breeders carefully mate and breed thoroughbred horses to become highly valued racers that perform at exceptional levels. A horse needs a certain amount of alertness to perform at the top, however, galloping hooves, yelling jockeys, cracking whips and cheering fans create a cacophony of noise. Even urban noise such as rescue vehicle sirens on city streets nearby can be heard on the track.

This creates a sound environment that might increase startle responses and make the horse skittish. Because of the noisy environment and the need for a high level of performance, trainers condition them to run at their best with a ‘noisy crowd’ live audience and with unusual noise distractions down on the track.

Some thoroughbreds, like American Pharoah, find this excessive noise unsettling and confusing. They lose focus and become nervous, distracted and might not perform as expected. Ear plugs offer damping and filtering of noise to assist the horse to focus on the race. They are not worn as hearing conservation but rather as a way to calm the horse.

Interesting facts about American Pharoah:

  • Foaled February 2, 2012
  • Owned by Ahmed Zayat
  • Trained by Bob Baffert
  • Ridden by Victor Espinoza (for most races)
  • 12th Triple Crown winner in history
  • Name is misspelled, through an error in registration of the name but is now permanent. Pharaoh is the correct spelling
  • Both the correct and incorrect name spellings are registered so another horse cannot use the correct spelling.


Pamela Mason, MEd, CCC-A, is ASHA director of audiology professional practices. pmason@asha.org.

The River School Emphasizes Integration of Kids With Hearing Loss


The River School—tucked along a tree-lined street in Washington, D.C.’s Northwest quadrant, alongside the Potomac River—specializes in the oral education of young children with hearing loss. But unlike other programs that silo and segregate deaf children from their typically hearing peers, the private school has developed an inclusive, mutually beneficial program that urges literacy and speech skills in both sets of students at the same time.

The ASHA Leader recently spent a sunny spring morning at the school. Here’s who we met and what they do.

On the other side

Jennie Massad has always had a personal connection to her job.

The preschool teacher wears a hearing aid for her moderate-to-severe hearing loss—an instant link to her students who also have aids or cochlear implants. But after the birth of her daughter, Amelia, and the diagnosis of Amelia’s hearing loss, Massad gained another connection to the River School—as a parent.

Massad’s worked at the school for eight years and appreciates the staff’s focus on the students and serving their needs. “[Amelia’s] teachers are aware of pushing language a little bit more and exposing her more,” Massad says, “where in the regular daycare, they’d be aware of it, but they may have a lot of other kids and it’s just not the top priority.”

With 11-month-old Amelia in the school’s infant program down the hall from her own classroom, Massad attends her daughter’s once-a-week treatment sessions, typical of most students with hearing loss. (Children 18 months or older participate in classroom programs, while the school takes babies as young as 6 weeks into its daycare.)

The school serves about 230 students—39 of whom have a hearing loss, according to Julie Verhoff, River’s audiology director—and employs a team of specialists to educate them. Each class includes a dedicated SLP to assist general educators like Massad, while audiologists offer support by troubleshooting issues with assistive technology. A handful of psychologists, therapists and other specialists fill out other offices.

And while it’s still a long way off for Amelia, students who complete third grade—the highest level of instruction offered at the River School—flow into mainstream public or private schools in the area, typically with ease.


Sounding it out with ‘Mouth Time’

On the April weekday morning of our visit, Fiacre Douglas sits on a carpeted floor, encouraging students to blow cocoa powder into the air.

Douglas is considerably older than your typical second-year speech-language pathology graduate student, but his enthusiasm for this new path shows in his interactions with students. As a student clinician at the River School this semester (the school calls him an intern), he’s been supervised by Samantha Wasilus—one of the school’s SLPs—and enjoys hands-on experiences in the classroom.

The cocoa powder—or “dino dust,” as Douglas and Wasilus call it to fit their current “back in time” theme—is one of today’s Mouth Time tools. Mouth Time, a River School innovation, takes place for 15 minutes a day in each class to help students develop literacy skills.

Sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle, the kids practice making a “ch” sound by placing their dino-dust–covered palms up to their lips. Each successful production receives a chocolate-y, chalky explosion as reward, followed by squeals of delight (and a meticulous lick of the hand for leftover specks). Later in the quick productive session, the children sound out words using symbols written on “dinosaur eggs.”

“What’s great about Mouth Time is that the kids all learn these symbols for the shape of their mouth, and how the words are formed, before they actually learn what the letters look like,” says Douglas, who recently completed his clinical placement and earned his master’s degree from George Washington University. “For the kids who have special needs for hearing, we’re making sure they’re hearing the word, they’re understanding the word and they’re learning it—as well as the other kids who don’t have those issues.”


Haley Blum is a writer/editor for The ASHA Leader. hblum@asha.org. 


Free Custom Hearing Protection for Professional Musicians


Musicians performing at the Bonnaroo and CMA music festivals near Nashville—both of which begin tomorrow—will receive free custom ear plugs that allow them to hear the notes clearly just at a lower volume. The plugs normally cost around $200 a pair.

The Vanderbilt Audiology Clinic and MusiCares sponsor the program, now in its second year at Bonnaroo. In addition to fitting them with custom plugs, audiologists from Vanderbilt educate the musicians on how important it is to protect their hearing. They also teach them about long-term effects of not wearing ear plugs.

Read more about the free hearing protection program.