What Is Linguistic Discrimination and What Can SLPs Do About It?

Discrimination can take a number of different forms, but linguistic discrimination is one type of prejudice not often talked about outside of speech circles. That doesn’t mean it isn’t prevalent, however — or that it doesn’t need to be addressed. And speech-language pathologists are in a unique position to advocate for those suffering at the hands of this damaging phenomenon.

Podcast guest Dr. Robert (Bob) McKinney has heard plenty of stories about this type of prejudice, and even witnessed a few instances of it himself. Encompassing any situation where someone is treated differently or put at a disadvantage due to their language use, linguistic discrimination can have consequences ranging from mild to severe. It’s gone so far as to hold individuals back from promotions and raises, and it can impact relationships and self-esteem in the long run. 

With so many negative consequences stemming from this speech issue, what can SLPs do to help those on the receiving end of it?

Thoroughly Investigate Referrals

One way SLPs can ensure they are being vigilant about linguistic discrimination is to thoroughly investigate referrals for speech therapy. If a non-native speaker is referred, the application should be vetted to make sure they genuinely require the requested services. Sadly, in some cases, SLPs will refer clients simply because of their accent or because they don’t speak Standard American English. To prevent this from happening more frequently, clinicians need to look out for implicit biases in themselves and others — and call them out when they find them.

Advocate for Clients

Part of an SLP’s job is to advocate for their clients, and in situations where discrimination is present, that portion of the job is more important than ever. Everything from providing services that make clients more comfortable and confident to intervening in situations where inappropriate discrimination is taking place counts as advocating. 

As McKinney suggests during this week’s episode of The Missing Link, sometimes advocating means reminding clients of their legal rights as well — and advising them to find a lawyer if necessary.

Be a Good Listener

Struggling with linguistic discrimination as a non-native speaker can be isolating. Although other non-native speakers may be able to relate to the experience, most natives won’t fully grasp the implications of such behavior. SLPs differ in that regard because, although some of them will be native speakers, they’ve studied speech and, in many cases, witnessed the discrimination and barriers certain clients face.

For that reason, SLPs make great listeners for non-native clients struggling with prejudice. Not only can they validate what these clients are going through, but they can advocate for them in ways friends and family members may not be able to.

Written by Mattie Murrey

February 24, 2021

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