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New faculty Elizabeth Biggs: Nurturing potential in students with disabilities

by Sep. 29, 2019, 7:48 PM

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2019-20. Read more profiles in the series.

Elizabeth Biggs’ introduction to the academic field that would become her passion started with a misunderstanding.

While studying abroad in Uganda as an undergraduate, she visited a primary school where her host sister worked as a teacher. When introduced to the headmaster, he quickly thanked Biggs, PhD’17, for offering to teach the children English. Shocked, she replied, “You don’t understand—I’m just visiting. I’m not qualified to teach English.”

He responded with a smile, “Not qualified? You speak English, don’t you?” She accepted the invitation to begin regularly volunteering at the school, and to her surprise, found a calling.

“In Uganda I fell in love with a lot of things about teaching,” the Indiana native says. “That experience helped me realize the power of education to change the lives of people, including those in less-resourced communities and those with disabilities.”

“That experience helped me realize the power of education to change the lives of people, including those in less-resourced communities and those with disabilities.”

After completing her undergraduate degree, Biggs moved to the American Southwest, where she enrolled in a special education master’s program at Western New Mexico University. She also took a special education teaching position on a Native American reservation where teacher turnover was high and resources low. Children with disabilities were especially at risk. She recalls a third-grade boy with an intellectual disability who had limited verbal speech. His Individualized Education Program (IEP), which included goals like learning to tie his shoes, had not changed since pre-K.

“Few people saw it, but he had incredible potential,” she says. “Within months he was writing his name, communicating and making friends. Working with students like him helped strengthen my passion for working with children with some of the most significant support needs.”

Biggs went on to earn a Ph.D. at Peabody College of education and human development, a hub for scholarship and training in the field of special education.

“This is one of the most innovative and impactful special education departments in the country,” she says. “It is thrilling to work alongside so many incredible colleagues who are on the cutting-edge of solving these complex issues and improving the lives of people with severe developmental disabilities.”

Biggs, now a faculty member in Peabody’s Department of Special Education and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development member, will focus her research on social and communication interventions for students with limited verbal speech who use augmentative and alternative communication systems, such as computerized speech-generating devices.

“We have so many pressing and yet-to-be-solved challenges in helping children with significant developmental disabilities truly flourish in our schools and communities,” Biggs says. “I can’t think of a more exciting place to do this work than here.”

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