IT'S HIGH TIME
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
High time that people are educated about speech and language. As is my usual stance, I am baffled that Americans remain misinformed. Speech Therapists work in every public school in the United States. I provided speech therapy to hundreds of children in my 36 years of service. If one does the math, probably millions of people have been affected by a speech/language disorder of some kind. There are those who have suffered a stroke and the concomitant speech and language deficits. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth's father, stuttered uncontrollably for years until he worked with a speech therapist. The story was the basis for the movie, The King's Speech. Now, we discover that our new President was treated for stuttering and has developed fantastic strategies for maintaing fluent speech. As recent as last Wednesday, at Biden's Inauguration, a young, gifted poet recited her magnificent work. It was revealed that she too had overcome speech problems as a child. First, definitions--Speech Impediment is not an acceptable term. It is to speech disorders what idiot or moron would be to those cognitively challenged. So, no, do not use the term. That CNN newscasters and the New York Times use these terms is indicative of being grossly misinformed, to put it kindly. The use of Speech Impediment was frowned upon when I was in graduate school in the mid 1970's. It is a term of the 1920's--1950's. There are different areas that encompass speech/language disorders. In the interest of not boring readers--Speech problems involve sound discrimination and production--articulation; stuttering--fluency; and voice--pitch, volume, quality, and prosody. Language problems relate to the comprehension and expression of oral language. Comprehension encompasses understanding vocabulary, grammatical structures, and auditory (aural) memory. Expression is defined as the oral production of vocabulary, syntax, and grammatical endings. Speech pathologists (therapists) treat individuals with deficits in the pragmatics of communication, the use of language--commenting, topic maintenance, and the complexities of the reciprocal back and forth of human communication. Speech Pathologists in medical settings also address breathing, swallowing, and chewing. President Biden had a fluency disorder which he probably deals with currently to some degree. No, he does not have dementia. No, he is not tired or lazy. No, he is not a bad speaker. And yes, he may ramble, but stutterers often do to avoid a block or being stuck on a word. This is a very embarrassing and humiliating situation for a stutterer. Amanda Gorman, the aforementioned poet, probably had a significant multiple articulation disorder as a young child. I treated children with this disorder which typically takes years of hard work to overcome. She referred to the /r/ sound, which in American English is a common--non-critical-- problem for man, due to the tongue placement necessary for the crisp /r/ sound and vowel--/r/ combinations considred correct pronunciation in certain parts of the country. Don't freak out Boston and the south, where the /r/ is often dropped. Many individuals have lisps or difficulty with the /s,z,sh,dg,zh/ sounds. Considered a mild difficulty, speakers who lisp either protrude their tongues for /s,z/ or produce slushy sounding words like shoe, George, mirage. For some odd reason, there have been and currently are newscasters who have uncorrected speech patterns. Another common phenomenon--now that I have your attention--is the use of vocal fry. Young men and especially women purposely attempt to lower their natural pitch, thereby causing a raspiness to their voices, not a good idea for the health of the vocal cords. Just today, on Fresh Air on NPR, I heard a discussion about vocal cord damage in the form of polyps. Frequently, singers suffer from this damage which may or may not be corrected by improved vocal habits and/or surgery. Julie Andrews was unfortunately affected by surgery to remove polyps which caused permanent damage. My point in mentioning the program on NPR is that the discussion did not involve a professional in the field. The speaker was a former singer and now writer for the New Yorker magazine. I am sure the gentleman is a good writer, but he is not a speech pathologist or a medical specialist in laryngology. It is the latter two professionals who study the vocal mechanism and structure and should be supplementing any public discussion on the topic. But, not quite yet. Speech pathologists are overlooked, much as nurses formerly were ignored. The majority of speech therapists are women who are highly educated and trained in the field. Just as physical and occupational therapists, the experts in their respective disciplines, are disregarded or underestimated for their important role in rehabilitation and special education. We are not just the helper in the hospital or school setting. We are not speech teachers rather experts in the complex field of speech/language disorders. Speech Patholigists are called upon to treat all manner of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, children of all ages, and adults. A speech therapist could have explained Biden's occasional vocal gaffes and errors rather than let his enemies begin yet another negative misinformation campaign. I am retired, and I am devoting my energy to writing now. I have been away from the field for eight years. I am surprised and dismayed that misconceptions continue to circulate as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.