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Cape Girardeau, Mo., Nov. 1, 2002 - What are the perspectives of Chinese-American families toward their young children with speech disabilities? What difference does culture have in the families' choices and means to make life better for their young children? These are some of the questions to be answered by Shu-Ju Lulu Chuang, a Taiwanese graduate student at Southeast Missouri State University, who is finishing her studies with the writing of a thesis.

"My thesis question is to investigate the concerns and challenges faced by Chinese-American families who have young children with disabilities who need or are using augmentative and alternative communication services."

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) services are methods that help individuals with communication difficulties to communicate more easily and effectively. AAC is used by individuals who have difficulty speaking or writing, or difficulty understanding others' speech or reading. Individuals may use AAC to support or replace difficulties in these areas.

"The study is also going to include the perspectives that these families have regarding their children's educational/intervention programs and their experiences with schools. Some parents are actually ashamed of their child's disability, and they do not think education is important for the child."

When she completes her thesis, Chuang will have completed two master's degrees at Southeast Missouri State University - a master's of elementary education degree with specialization in early childhood education and a master's degree in special education. Her thesis is designed to meet the requirements of both master's degrees.

The thesis follows up on recent research related to cultural differences when dealing with (AAC) services. Several studies were conducted by her primary thesis advisor, Dr. Phil Parette, Southeast professor of elementary, early and special education, and Dr. Mary Blake Huer, a professor at California State University - Fullerton, with whom Chuang met at a conference in Los Angeles. These earlier studies revealed similarities as well as differences across cultures that practitioners should become familiar with before offering clinical services to families and their children. The studies had a broad focus on cultural groups such as the Asian-American population.

Chuang says, "I realized that you could not generalize about all Asian-Americans, so I wanted my study to focus only on Chinese-Americans. Then I wanted to compare my findings to the research already done."

The study was further limited to the population of Chinese-Americans living in the greater Los Angeles area and the primary method of research was to conduct in-depth interviews with a group of families. Dr. Huer referred her to Chinese professors at California State University - Fullerton and to a Chinese speech-pathologist from the Garfield Medical Center in Los Angeles, who had contacts in the Chinese community.

At this time, Chuang has completed all interviews and she is now in the process of analyzing the compiled information. During the initial research process, Chuang has faced several challenges.

The biggest challenge for Chuang was to create a network in Los Angeles that could locate the specific research subjects. This challenge almost put a brake on her work before it even got started. When Chuang came to Los Angeles for the first time to find Chinese-American families who had young children with speech disabilities who are using or needing AAC services, she was told that the chances of finding appropriate families to participate in the study were slim.

Chuang says, "At the time, the contacts I had did not know of any families within the specific target group. They either worked with adults or with teenagers, and I needed young children at the age of 3 to 8 years." When returning to Southeast, Chuang told her thesis advisor the news. However, after breaking the news, she added convincingly, "I have faith." She simply refused to believe that it would be impossible. After waiting three months, Chuang still did not have any families to interview.

"So I told myself, I have to go out there. I have to make them realize the importance of this study," she said. After a few days in Los Angeles, the Chinese speech pathologist from the medical center was finally able to identify four families that met all criteria. From then on, the word began spreading in the Chinese community. More families became available, and the families she interviewed recommended a few additional families who might be willing to participate. Chuang conducted seven interviews in Los Angeles.

"None of this would have been possible without the support from my network in Los Angeles," she said. "Especially my contact in the medical center proved to be valuable, since she was the only one of my contacts who worked with younger children." Another major challenge was the cultural differences between her and the families.

"I had to work hard on the relationship with the families," she said, "It is important to understand their personal limits and to understand the culture of the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles. Even though I am a Chinese-American myself, it was a culture shock".

"When I started out, I thought that the Chinese-American families would be able to manage the interviews in English. But, unfortunately, they could not," she said, "I therefore had to translate every related document into Chinese, and with all the technical terms that was a real challenge."

Chuang enjoyed the time she spent with the families in Los Angeles. Some families have invited her to become part of the family and visit with their children. Chuang says the most interesting part of her thesis work has been to get to know these Chinese-American families and their children.

"Writing a thesis is a really good learning process, even though it sometimes seems like a mess. For me it was a huge challenge to meet with the families, but I have to say, at the same time, it was a true blessing," she said.

Chuang came to the United States from Taiwan in 1996 with the primary objective of improving her English. She participated in the Intensive English Program at Southeast Missouri State University, and while in the program, she learned about the bachelor's degree in early childhood education offered at Southeast. Chuang had already completed a bachelor's degree in kindergarten education in Taiwan and had worked for four years as a teacher, but her dream was to work in the area of special education. Now, on the verge of finishing her master's degrees, she looks back on her years at Southeast with great satisfaction.

"One thing I really like about Southeast is the faculty," she said. "As an international student, you have a lot of questions, and faculty members have been really supportive and helpful through all steps of my education. I simply love all the facilities and the staff in the Department of Elementary, Early and Special Education."


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