The Importance of Diversifying Speech-Language Pathology

Diversity is important in every field, and speech-language pathology is no exception to that rule. Courtney Overton stressed as much during the latest episode of The Missing Link for SLPs podcast, where she chronicled her own journey into speech-language pathology and her transition from working in schools to running a private practice. 

Her business, Speech of Cake, has a philanthropic component that strives to help diversify the field by spreading awareness. Overton travels to high schools in the D.C. area that have a high population of underrepresented students and educates them about being an SPL. 

If you’re wondering why diversifying speech-language pathology is such a big deal in the first place, here’s a jarring statistic. According to data from ASHAWire, 92 percent of SPLs identify as white. Not only does that suggest SPLs need to be making a greater effort to welcome professionals from other races and ethnicities into the field, but it presents a potential problem for clients of color. 

After all, those in need of speech services are from a vast array of backgrounds, and many of them speak multiple languages. Shouldn’t they be represented by the clinicians serving them?

And the differences in culture and linguistics do create barriers when it comes to treatment. As Overton points out during the episode, it can sometimes lead to under- and over-diagnosing due to differences in dialect. For example, a student can be over-diagnosed with a speech disorder when a clinician doesn’t understand the dialect that student is using — even if there aren’t actually mistakes in the student’s speech. 

On the flip side, clinicians can also assume errors are because of dialect differences, leading them to believe there’s nothing wrong with a student’s speech patterns even when there is. This is part of why having SPLs who use the same dialect as students and clients is crucial to proper treatment.

It’s also important that students and clients see themselves represented in the world outside of treatment. That’s why Overton is studying the representation of disabilities in young adult literature. From inspiring children to make a difference to helping them connect with others, there are numerous reasons it’s critical that kids see themselves represented in stories growing up. 

Sadly, that’s an experience children with disabilities don’t always get to enjoy. This is especially true when it comes to learning disabilities.

SPLs have plenty of work to do when it comes to diversifying the field and making clients feel well represented. Luckily, the more research that’s done and the more awareness that’s spread, the more likely it is that we’ll see an increase of students from diverse backgrounds entering the field. And we can all take a leaf out of Overton’s book and help guide them down the right path when they do. 

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September 24, 2020

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