Fostering Social Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities Through Research and Service

April 25, 2024
student spotlight - catherine leftwich

“People with disabilities are often overlooked despite their unique abilities and desire for love,” said Catherine Leftwich, a Senior in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD). Leftwich is working towards a career as an audiologist and is currently involved in two projects alongside Center faculty affiliate and Assistant Professor in CSD, Dr. Alison Prahl. Leftwich, graduating this May, has dedicated her studies at Baylor to working with individuals with disabilities. She pursued a degree in CSD because of her keen interest in working with individuals with disabilities. Initially, she had set her sights on pursuing a degree in special education and began working part-time as a Registered Behavior Technician. After taking an audiology course at Baylor, she discovered her true calling to become an audiologist.

As an undergraduate research assistant, Leftwich co-leads the Hangout for Unique Individuals with Developmental Disabilities Learning & Engaging (HUDDLE), a project launched by Dr. Prahl. The HUDDLE provides an opportunity for adults with developmental disabilities to socialize with others and discuss various topics monthly. “We hope it allows the participants to find commonalities with peers and form a bond that could be continued outside of the monthly meeting,” she said. Leftwich organizes the monthly gatherings for this program, prepares activity materials, and facilitates peer conversations. Leftwich said, “I have gained many friends from the HUDDLE and enjoy seeing our members gain friends and learn about their commonalities.” A recent conversation on "happy holidays" turned into participants sharing their stories of loved ones they had lost. “It was truly inspiring to see how they supported and listened to one another during this difficult time.”

Leftwich also serves on another project led by Dr. Prahl, Written Language Intervention Using Functional Texts (WLIFT), funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This project focuses on improving reading skills during everyday activities (e.g., text messages, emails, written directions) for young adults (ages 18-26) with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Leftwich serves as the assessor for the NIH grant, where she is responsible for conducting intervention sessions and tracking participant progress with pre-and post-treatment assessments. She said, “I hope our study helps the participants improve their functional literacy and thus their independence.”

Before her current roles, Leftwich had never worked in research. Still, she is grateful for the opportunity, experience, and mentorship Dr. Prahl has provided her. Dr. Prahl said. “Leftwich has been an instrumental team member on our NIH-funded research project exploring how to best support reading in young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her patience and flexibility really shine through as she leads data collection sessions with young adults with IDD. We couldn’t do this work without Leftwich’s dedication and support. It’s been wonderful to see her gain confidence and experience continued growth as she’s worked on the project!” The research team hopes to significantly contribute to the existing knowledge base of disabilities and the effectiveness of their intervention techniques on reading skills. 

Leftwich will start her doctoral program in Audiology this fall at the University of Texas at Dallas. “I have always been passionate about helping people and problem-solving, and audiology combines these interests well. I plan to work with people of low socioeconomic status to provide hearing technology for free, either by establishing a nonprofit clinic or owning a foundation. I also plan to specialize in working with individuals with special needs or who are deaf/hard of hearing.” 

Leftwich’s research and service promote an inclusive and supportive society by fostering social skills for individuals with disabilities. It enables people with disabilities to engage with others in various social contexts so they may lead fulfilling lives alongside individuals with and without disabilities.