Thursday, June 16, 2022
In the Fall of 2006, Dr. Gloria Streit Olness started at the University of North Texas, as a tenure-track faculty member. Rehabilitation for communication disorders is a specialty. Dr. Olness and her team are conducting foundational research within a network they started, known as The Aphasia Collaborative (TAC), to support and collaborate with people whose lives have been impacted by aphasia (trauma to the brain, typically resulting from a stroke, that affects speech, writing, and understanding of written and spoken language) and their co-survivors. TAC is a growing, region-wide network designed to raise awareness and to expand access to supports, services, and research for North Texans with the communicative impairment. In her teaching and research, Dr. Olness and her students together examine how the human nervous system works, how it can break down, and how these breakdowns can impact what is most precious to us: communication. "We then apply this understanding toward collaborative design of cutting-edge, evidence-based rehabilitation with people living with neurogenic communication disorders, while staying sensitive to the intricacies of each person’s life story, life contexts, and life priorities." If you're curious about how a northern Midwest small-town high school drum major with a love for the quiet outdoors ended up leading a sing-along of a few thousand people at the Toledo Zoo, continue reading and get to know Dr. Gloria Olness, as well as how the lives of Bruce Willis and former congresswoman Gabby Giffords inspire hope for others who have aphasia in their journey toward recovery!
What is your favorite aspect about your job?
I research and teach on the topic of rehabilitation for people with communication disorders caused by stroke, brain injury, brain tumor, and degenerative neurological disease. The best feature of my job is that I am free to collaborate across disciplines, institutions, countries, and cultures with people who are focused on finding creative solutions to specific, real-life puzzles and problems. Each person is trusted to bring their unique perspectives and experiences to the table, which enhances our ability to find solutions. I am also proud to be part of a highly diverse public research university, which provides broad access to a world-class educational experience, and promotes science, humanities, and the arts in contributing to the greater societal good.
What led you to your particular field of study/expertise?
I came into the field of communication sciences and disorders through a back door. I’m fascinated by language, foreign languages, social networks, culture, and travel---and I’ve always loved a good story. Humans possess delicate and refined systems for personal storytelling; with exchanges of just a few words said in just the right way, we can travel together warp-speed through space and time, and then share our reactions to all the events and new ideas encountered along the way. When this essential human ability to communicate is threatened by a communication disorder, it is our ethical responsibility to seek to understand and to collaborate in rehabilitation with and for the person. Communicative access and life participation with friends, family, and community are basic human rights.
There was a local WFAA/ABC online news article that focused on the actor Bruce Willis having aphasia. The announcement sparked a
national awareness of aphasia. Your own research has helped elevate UNT as a Tier
1 research university, what do you see as most exciting about the present and future
impact regarding aphasia or even other areas of speech/language?
This is a difficult development for Mr. Willis and his family, and I wish them all the best in their journey. Their announcement sparked a sharp increase in global awareness of aphasia that has given voice to millions of people around the world whose lives and relationships have been impacted by aphasia. And this voice has been further amplified by the announcement of the upcoming release of the documentary film about former congresswoman, Gabby Giffords; she lives with aphasia, and she does not let it define who she is. This increased public awareness has promoted the understanding that aphasia is a disorder of language, not intellect, and that intervention and rehabilitation for people with aphasia offer hope for ongoing gains in functional communication and life participation that will continue across the person’s lifetime. The outlook for garnering support for aphasia-related research and development has never been better. Currently, our multidisciplinary research at UNT is funded by the Josephine Simonson Aphasia Trust Fund of the Southwestern Medical Foundation; we are very thankful for that support.
What is your proudest work moment?
I am proud that people with aphasia are integral members and decision-makers on our research and advocacy teams. People with aphasia are the true experts on living with aphasia; without stakeholder engagement, our work would be meaningless. Two of our newest research projects are in the process of expanding the core research team; each new addition of a research team member who has survived stroke and has aphasia is a hallmark moment.
What is your proudest non-work moment?
I am very proud of my three children and my husband, across lots of seemingly small moments. Their professional achievements cut across fields of education, engineering, global health, humanities, international relations, micro-economics, physics, sustainability, and technology. But I’m most proud that they are grounded in their principles and values, that they put other people before themselves, and that they place priority on relationships, including broader societal equity and justice.
What is a fact about you that may surprise your colleagues?
I grew up in a small town in the Chicagoland area that borders between lakeshore steel mills and country farmland, but for two brief periods in my life, I lived in France. I’m generally quiet, but don’t mind being on stage when it brings people together –- I once helped lead a sing-along of a few thousand people at an open-air musical event at the Toledo Zoo, and I was drum major for our marching band when I was in high school. I relax with music and always wanted to take actual piano lessons, so finally, during the pandemic, I started taking piano lessons, from a graduate of the UNT School of Music.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE...
TV Show:? We don’t have a TV at home. But I listen to a lot of National Public Radio and foreign radio broadcasts, and I’m a voracious reader and podcast listener. Most recently, my thinking and beliefs have been stretched and challenged by listening to the podcast, The Bible Project, and through re-reads of C.S. Lewis. Also, I have read scores of biographies and autobiographies of people who have survived illness and trauma, including autobiographies of people who have survived stroke and have aphasia. They make me reflect on what I have; on ways to re-gain hope when there are hurdles and bumps in the road; and on ways to improve my ability to be present in my work and life for other people who also have their own struggles and rough patches.
Place to visit:? U.S. National Parks - I’m at peace surrounded by natural beauty—it started with camping, swimming, boating, and hiking in beautiful places with my family when I was a kid, and in my early adulthood it included casual sailing, and teaching sailing to grade-school children, on beautiful lakes in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Restaurant:? In Denton, I frequent Spiral Diner, Chestnut Tree Tea Room, and Thai Square. I appreciate the variety of vegetarian options. I’m not the best at sticking to a vegetarian diet 100%, but I’m trying to decrease the size of my footprint on the environment.