Tell us why you decided to become a speech pathologist?
I specialize in deaf and hard-of-hearing children and those with reading disorders and dyslexia. I moved into the space by accident and chance. I originally started my college career wanting to be a pharmacist and was dead set on being a pharmacist until I took organic chemistry two! It did not align with my mental and was just not my thing, and I quickly realized that was not going to work.
My younger brother is dyslexic, and I ended up getting a job that summer at a reading center and loved the work that I did, but I knew that I didn’t want to stay confined to just working for that company. So I switched my major, got a BS in Public Health at the University of South Carolina, and transitioned to earning my Master’s in Speech Pathology.
Do you feel that there is a lack of knowledge regarding the general public understanding of what a speech and language pathology does?
Absolutely! So what many people don’t know is that speech pathologists cover the gamut from birth to end-of-life care. We can work with babies that are little when they are first born, especially those in the NICU who have difficulty feeding and swallowing.
An SLP can assist as children start to get a little bit older, and we’re noticing that they might be delayed in their language skills and can help. Even in school settings, once we start entering into that social communication, still building on those language skills, we assist and support kids there. When looking into that adult population, post-stroke, people are starting to have some cognitive memory difficulties and some challenges with swallowing, and feeding SLPs can help support.
When we look at being evaluated, people often emphasize children, and we tend to see that it realms within that school age. We can support kids earlier on., but sometimes people don’t know about services. They’re not aware, or they have been told to wait and see. So then we don’t get in and get them evaluated until that school-age milestone. And then they fall behind. And parents are saying, why didn’t we know that an SLP could have been helping us sooner?
When it comes to adults, many SLPs experience going into the room. The person says, “I don’t need you; I speak just fine,” not fully understanding that we can address language and memory deficits. We can help address those two, or they cannot eat their favorite meal safely right now, and we want to work on strategies to make that possible again.
It is estimated that 5% to 10% of Americans have some form of delay or difficulty with speech. Do you feel a lack of knowledge of services and stigma creates emotional tension and even people lashing out?
Yes, so what we have to acknowledge is that at some point, it might be a disability that the person is working with, you know, like having a language disorder or a speech impairment, there are many emotions attached. The feelings come from the stigma associated with it; many times, people who have had challenges in the past are deemed more minor, called names, or they’re pointed out and made so apparent versus it being more acceptable.
It is okay that you need extra assistance. It is okay that you need to see somebody to work on these things. There is nothing wrong with you because you need additional services. Statistically, every person on this earth has something to navigate.
It may not be speech and language, but it could be their fine motor skills. Someone may need to see an occupational therapist or find support in how they are walking. We don’t have to sit there and focus though so much on the deficit, but focus on where are we trying to get? Where is our ultimate goal? What are we trying to establish? What are we trying to work on? And that is our goal and what is driving our car, boat, and ship. Can we ignore the noise? Because there will always be people who want to shame and find problems with the way we do things.
Within marginalized communities, it is more complex because there is so much stigma surrounding special education services and disabilities. Even if it’s not coming from the child or the adult client themselves, but from their family members or friends. It is challenging, and we have to meet the whole person and the whole unit to make our spaces open, to address some of those things, because otherwise, we are not going to see the progress that we’re wanting or expecting.
Do you feel like we are seeing enough marginalized people of color stepping into the offices to get these services?
I’ve worked in a couple of different settings; I worked in a hospital setting right out of grad school. I saw much delay in services, even delay getting the referral to begin getting services. It usually is not that the families or individuals are unaware that they need extra support. But when they go to their service providers, they might initially be told, “just wait, we can check on this later.” Sometimes, it does come from the families. They are not necessarily addressing it right away because of that stigma.
That’s one of the reasons I started the Listening S L P, and for people that have been around from day one, it started for students and for grad students to find support. Especially grad students of color, but then quickly shifted once I realized that people don’t have access to the information.
We have barriers, gatekeepers, and people that are not sharing all of the information freely. We are not giving the whole buffet. We are just giving bits and pieces from the menu, which is not acceptable or okay in healthcare. We have to give people all their available options, and then we let them choose.
We guide them by giving them complete transparency with information. When we look at children from majority groups, they’re getting these diagnoses in kindergarten for second grade versus marginalized groups not getting these diagnoses until the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Some go their whole lives and are not getting these diagnoses, but they are getting a label. They are getting labeled as behavioral and non-compliant disruptive, which are the same behaviors in the adult population. We see adults who might not be as receptive, using the professionals’ strategies, getting the labels. They’re combative, and they are not following doctors’ orders. It is the same situation. Because as healthcare professionals, we are not stepping back and acknowledging the expertise that this person has for their own life and their own lived experience. Instead of shifting gears and finding what will meet their needs, we are trying to force our knowledge down their throat. Something that’s not palatable to them.
So how can an adult do a scan to evaluate if an SLP is needed, and how can a parent or a caregiver assess if it is time for their Child to work with an SLP?
When thinking about adults, look for difficulty with memory—so remembering things that you used to be able to do, following directions, really those global things. I would call and ask your doctor and say, do you think I might benefit because an SLP can further assess and see cognitively. SLPs work with voice too, but if you start seeing your vocal quality change in any capacity, generally, you’ll want to see an E N T or an ear, nose, and throat doctor to make sure that nothing is going on that’s being missed.
It looks slightly different with the adult population because you generally need to go to see your primary care or a specialist before you get to an S L P. With kids a little bit different. From birth to three range, we consider early intervention or preventative. You can self-refer to early intervention, and each state has its early intervention program.
One option is to go through the local school with Child Find. The organization’s job is to find children who might need support in services. And so you would put it in writing that you’re requesting an evaluation, and then they would take you through the process per that state. Another option you always have is to do private, and sometimes there are private practices that accept insurance. So if your child doesn’t qualify for school services, private practitioners might have criteria because schools do have eligibility criteria.
What does listen, learn and advocate, mean to you? When did you come up with that approach, and what does it genuinely mean within this work to listen, learn and advocate?
I started my business in April of 2021. So I had my business name, The Listening S L P. I came up with those three essential words because I have to listen to the people in front of me to appreciate what they need me to bring to the table entirely. Because it does no good if I’m not actively listening to their actual problems, you learn from everybody. Each person is an individual; people are not monoliths. I am advocating because we should not be seeing people forever in any therapeutic service. We should be figuring out how to give clients the tools to navigate their life.
What would be your call to action regarding the provider side and diversity?
If we look at percentages that have been published about the demographics of speech pathologists, it is a 92% white female field. The other 8% are marginalized groups.
I love that people from marginalized groups are getting more comfortable obtaining services, not feeling ashamed, and taking the stigma out on their kids. But then they’re encountering these providers that don’t know how to serve them, or they don’t feel connected to them, and they are disconnected. So we have to get more people in the field to help the increases we’re seeing. I think one way is knowing that there are others of us out there who want to enter the area.
From the schooling aspect, do not discourage people from getting a degree. I’ve heard so many people say, you know, I was told I wasn’t going to make it in a master’s program, or I wasn’t cut out to do this. What needs to happen is on the academic side; we have to figure out how we can meet the needs of these students and realize that their needs might look very different from the specific needs of someone pursuing their master’s in speech or language pathology.
The Listening SLP
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