Individuals with Atypical Speech & Language Disorders in Society

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

People with communication disorders can thrive in modern society, but this was not always the case. In this lesson, we will learn how cultures have treated and mistreated people with communication challenges, and how they have adapted.

Challenged in a Communicative Society

Marty is hearing impaired. Richard stutters. Jamie has cerebral palsy and cannot speak clearly.

All three lead full lives. They work hard at their jobs, spend time with friends, pursue leisure activities, and love their families.

These statements might seem unnecessary. Just because somebody has to work harder to communicate doesn't make them any less a valuable member of society, after all. However, this frame of mind has not always been the prevailing one. Let's look at each of our new friends and how they live today versus how they might have lived in the past.

Marty: Hearing Impairment

Marty lost most of his hearing to a childhood illness. He was tested by an audiologist and fitted with hearing aids as soon as his parents realized he needed help.

Hearing aids helped Marty in school, but they weren't always enough. His speech therapist supported him in approaching his teachers, and once they understood what he needed, they were happy to help. Marty sat close to the front of the classroom and his teachers tried to face him when they spoke.

After graduation, Marty went to work in a factory. He liked his work and was eligible to become a supervisor. However, the noisy environment interfered with his hearing aids, which in turn negatively affected his bosses' opinion of him. Marty researched cochlear implants, tiny high-tech devices implanted in the ear to carry sound.

When Marty got implants, the difference was like night and day. He could hear and understand much better, and he got the promotion.

A generation or two ago, Marty wouldn't have had many of these opportunities. Hearing aids were big and clunky, built into eyeglass frames or worn on the body, and did not work well in many settings.

People with hearing impairments were often considered slow-witted. Even today, we see how Marty's bosses thought he couldn't do a job he was qualified for because of his hearing loss. Fortunately, modern technology enabled him to present his abilities, rather than his limitations.

Richard: Stuttering

Most young children go through a period of stuttering-type speech, usually associated with their desire to communicate outrunning their vocabulary and ability to express themselves. For Richard, though, the dysfluency never resolved.

Once Richard started school, he was immediately referred for speech therapy. His therapist helped him learn to 'stutter easily', how to smooth out his words and glide through speech. He worked hard and felt more comfortable speaking over time.

Sometimes other kids laughed at Richard's speech; but his personality was lively, and instead of getting angry or upset, he laughed too. This disarmed would-be bullies and made him many friends.

When deciding on a career, Richard wanted to help others as he had been helped. In college, he majored in speech pathology. He had learned techniques to improve stuttered speech from the inside, and that made him not only a good therapist but a great role model.

Stuttering is one of the oldest recognized speech impairments, documented in the Bible and ancient Greek texts. In the past, it was frequently thought to be a psychological problem. People often felt a stutterer could correct their own speech simply by slowing down or relaxing. If a stutter persisted, the stutterer must not be trying hard enough.

Only recently, we have learned that stuttering frequently has a neurological basis. Therapists now teach clients to control their stutter, rather than trying to eliminate it.

Jamie: Cerebral Palsy

Due to a brain injury at birth, Jamie's ability to control her body was damaged. She could not walk, and her speech was slurred and slow.

Jamie's speech therapist suggested an AAC (augmentative/alternative communication) device. AAC can be as simple as a stack of cards with pictures and text, but Jamie needed a computer specially programmed to speak for her. With practice, she learned to scan the screen, press a switch mounted on her wheelchair, and produce words, sentences, and eventually, conversation.

At school, Jamie had an aide to help her get around. Other children were fascinated by her AAC device, and with that as an ice-breaker, Jamie became the wisecracking center of a wide circle of friends. She found that she loved being the focus of attention if the attention was positive. She also loved science and idolized the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, who uses AAC.

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