DALLAS TWP. — Mary Gulotta remembers the look on their faces: Vacant stares. Awkward smiles. Slow nods.
These were the looks people gave Gulotta’s best friend throughout high school. Born with a cleft palate, he had difficulty communicating and, even after undergoing corrective surgery, people simply didn’t understand him.
So often, however, they pretended that they did. Smiling. Nodding.
“He was used to it. He was used to getting negative reactions from people, like they would pretend to know what he was saying,” Gulotta recalled. “It made him insecure. When we would go out to a restaurant I would order from him, or if we were in a store and he needed to flag someone down, I would do it for him.”
Gulotta’s friend died in 2012, but her memories of him and his everyday struggle remain with her to this day. “Seeing how it affected him was my inspiration for going into what I’m doing now,” she said.
Gulotta, 23, of Trucksville, is studying speech-language pathology at Misericordia University. In doing so, she works with individuals of all ages, including children, some of whom struggle with developmental delays, hearing impairment, autism spectrum disorders, stuttering and other disorders.
Gulotta’s dedication recently resulted in the first-year graduate student being awarded the 2013 Von Drach Memorial Scholarship by the Pennsylvania Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
One of the things that spurred Gulotta to apply for the scholarship was encouragement from her mentor, Glen Tellis, the chair of Misericordia’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology.
Under Tellis, Gulotta is participating in a study in which researchers from Misericordia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Physics and Astrophysics use near-infrared spectroscopy and diffuse correlation spectroscopy to measure blood concentration in the brains of people who stutter. Levels then are compared to those people who do not stutter.
“We’re using this new technology. We’re the first ones to use it for stuttering research, which is really exciting,” Gulotta said. “It’s all towards helping us understand what causes stuttering and what differences there are in the brain, because there is no one known cause.”
Not content with simply doing behind-the-scenes research, Gulotta works one on one with speech-disordered individuals to help them improve their communication skills. She knows, however, that what she does is only one part of the process for them.Sometimes, the hardest part is not living with a disability, but rather living with the way people respond to it, she said.
“I feel like a lot of time people question their intelligence. … People always try to finish their thoughts for them. Or, like my friend, they would just nod. And he knew right away they didn’t know what he was saying,” she said.
“I feel like they think they’re doing them a favor. Instead of trying to spare them the embarrassment of asking them to repeat themselves, just do that,” she said. “Give them the chance to actually say what they’re thinking and try to understand.”