A partnership between the School of Performing Arts, the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and the Department of Psychology at UCF is helping improve the lives of people with aphasia.
Aphasia is a condition that stems from brain injury, most often the result of an accident or stroke. People with aphasia may have difficulty with oral and written language, such as finding the words to express themselves. While everyone sometimes forgets the word they’re trying to think of, it can be a daily struggle for people with aphasia.
The National Aphasia Association (NAA) estimates there are 2 million. According to a 2020 survey by the NAA, only 15% of the population is aware of the disease. To the untrained eye, the symptoms are often mistaken for intoxication or intellectual disability. Aphasia is neither.
Seva Reilly, a student earning her bachelor’s degree in Communication Science and Disorders, took an acting class in 2020 and quickly realized the potential the performing arts could have on some of the families she works with at the House. of UCF aphasia. The house is a clinic staffed by UCF’s Faculty of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Graduate students work as student clinicians and undergraduate students can volunteer to work with clients in the community. Reilly is the President of the Adaptive Community, also known as UCF Aphasia Family. This is a free community group for people and their families living with aphasia.
“I took Professor (Sybil) St. Claire’s Theater for Social Change specialized course in 2020, where she introduced us to Playback Theater,” says Reilly. “I loved how Playback shared and honored the stories of the public, and I invited them to perform for Aphasia Family. The collaboration has only grown since then, and I was thrilled to be a part (of the production) Advocacy for aphasia and its mission to educate first responders about aphasia.
St. Claire, a lecturer at UCF since 2002, was eager to collaborate. She introduced Playback UCF to the campus community and worked with the group for years as a faculty mentor. The troupe performs improvisational theater where actors listen to stories from the audience and act them out using drama, music and metaphor. Her course focuses on how the performing arts can be used to support positive social change.
“People underestimate the power of art to impact lives,” St. Claire says. “There is often a feeling of isolation and loneliness with aphasia, and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Playback UCF allowed participants to share their stories and build community. This is the power of art. It can bring people together and heal in a broad sense.
The troupe performs on campus and throughout the community during the school year. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve also found ways to perform remotely.
As St. Claire and Reilly began chatting, they added Sage Tokach, a graduate student in the Young Audience Theater Program and artistic director of Playback UCF, to the team. Soon they had a project they named Advocating for Aphasia: Using the Performing Arts to Elevate a Conscious Community, which was funded by a Pabst-Steinmetz Arts and Wellness Innovation grant. The goal was to empower people with aphasia to defend themselves and educate first responders about the condition.
This project culminated in a celebration called Aphasia Family Field Day held last April in Lake Claire on UCF’s main campus. The day brought together UCF student volunteers, UCF faculty, stroke survivors and their caregivers, the UCF Police Department and Playback UCF.
One of the main objectives of the project was to create an educational video designed to increase awareness among first responders. The team, which also included graduate students including film major Sherry Dadgar and performance major Sterling Street, worked together to create an educational video to share with first responders and environmental organizations. ‘aphasia. The video was completed in May and is being actively shared as part of Aphasia Awareness Month, which ends June 30.
Sharon Pierson, an Orlando resident who participated in the project, said she was happy to be part of it.
“It means I can share my personal experiences and how aphasia has impacted my life,” says Pierson. “Also, to let others know that aphasia isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t mean we’re not smart people. In fact, we’re very smart. It’s just a shame that we can’t get our words across the way we want them to come out.”
St. Claire is also preparing journal articles with the faculty team from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (Amy Engelhoven and Lauren Bislick) and the Department of Psychology (Megan Sherrod) about the project and what has been learned.
“Collaborations like these are powerful,” says St. Claire. “I’m proud that we can come together to show how art can make a difference.”
As for Playback UCF, they are going on hiatus this summer, but plan to continue performing in the community, on campus, and with UCF’s Aphasia House again.