Saratoga Students Hearing Loss Turns into Speech Pathology Career at UW

December 5, 2013
Two women
University of Wyoming student Dani Riker from Saratoga counsels a student as part of her speech pathology master’s degree work practicum. (Stephanie Feldick Photo)

By Stephanie Feldick, UW Institutional Communications Intern

Until the age of 5, Dani Riker was under the impression that everyone could hear out of only one ear.

Riker, a University of Wyoming graduate student in speech pathology (SP), says she would tell her mom that the left side of her headphones did not work, to which her mom would confusedly reply, “Yeah, they work fine.”

Lindsey, Riker’s older sister of four years, informed her parents, Jack and Debbie Riker, that her sister could not hear out of one ear. They had not yet considered that possibility. After a visit to the doctor, Riker was diagnosed with conductive hearing loss (CHL) in her left ear.

CHL prevents sound from getting from the outer ear to the eardrum and bones in the inner ear, specifically to the middle bone that is supposed to vibrate with sound. But, in the case of CHL, it does not.

After her diagnosis, 5-year-old Riker moved with her parents and sister from Borger, Texas, where she was born, to Saratoga in Carbon County. The diagnosis was made in Wyoming after the family moved from Texas.

During school at Saratoga Elementary and Saratoga Middle schools, Riker did not feel the need to wear a hearing aid because the CHL was not a problem for her; teachers would simply amplify their voices.

Ever since the diagnosis was made, Riker and her parents planned to correct the hearing loss once she became a freshman at Saratoga High School. CHL often can be corrected medically or surgically, but Riker was not so fortunate. The doctor described Riker’s condition as a textbook example of something that he had never seen before; her facial nerve was wrapped around her inner ear bones.

“I just decided that I would rather have a normal face and have deafness in one ear,” Riker says with a laugh.

Riker and her doctor opted against surgery at the risk of causing severe damage but, instead of walking away empty-handed, she got a hearing aid.

“I wouldn’t say that the hearing aid completely resolves the problem, but it helps a lot,” Riker says. “I can definitely tell when I’m not wearing it.”

The decision against surgery led Riker toward her career path. Originally, she wanted to pursue the rehabilitation-focused field of audiology, but she quickly decided that SP, a more treatment-focused field, was a better fit.

After graduating from Saratoga High School in 2008, Riker was accepted to UW, where she majored in SP and earned her Bachelor of Science degree (2012). She is now working on her master’s degree in SP and expects to receive her degree next summer.

Riker says she chose to go into SP because it involves far more than just correcting a person’s speech.

“When people think of a speech pathologist, they think of correcting  ‘R’s,’ correcting ‘S’s,’ but it’s so much more than that,” Riker says.

Speech pathology also helps people who are non-verbal from the effects of developmental disabilities, strokes, etc., by teaching them how to communicate wants, decisions and comments through pictures. Pragmatics, the social aspect of communicating, also is a major part of social pathology, which teaches the proper use of eye contact, appropriateness and turn-taking during conversations.

Aside from being a student at UW, Riker also spent her time in an area that often surprises many -- choir. A singer since kindergarten, Riker joined UW’s choir group Bel Canto during her first two years at the university.

A fellow choir member, Riker’s roommate at the time, also has hearing loss in one ear.

“It’s really cool when you can make that connection with someone,” Riker says.

Riker also connected with another female student in the social pathology program; she too, has hearing loss in one ear.

Currently, Riker is working on her practicum at Laramie’s Spring Creek Elementary School, where she works with children in grades K-5. During the spring semester, she will continue working on her practicum in Casper at Summit Elementary School and at Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital. After she graduates in spring 2014, Riker wants to work with K-12 students, but any age would make her happy.

“SP is a huge scope of practice, which is one of the things I really love about it,” Riker says.

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