8 Jun 2020

Communicating through barriers

From Afternoons, 2:35 pm on 8 June 2020

People in New Zealand are approaching speech therapists for ‘accent reduction’, often seen as a way of removing social barriers and improving job opportunities, a veteran practitioner says.

The type of vocal training has become popular overseas, with people worried their accents are holding them back, Joanne Byrne tells Jesse Mulligan.

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Photo: 123RF

Byrne trained as a speech-language therapist at the age of 20 and has worked in the field for decades.

She says a strong accent can not only make it difficult to be understood, it can also affect job prospects and leave a person open to racism.

Bryne says, although this focus in New Zealand is relatively small, it reflects a real concern for those self-referring for help.

“If you mention in New Zealand that you’ve got a really strong accent – and we can see that racism is an issue across the world – it can be a barrier for people.

“Sometimes I’ve noticed that when I’m on the phone to a call centre, and the person there has got an accent, you have to really concentrate to tune in and focus on what they’re saying and it’s harder over the phone because you don’t have any visual support.

“If you’ve got quite a strong accent and it’s impacting on your ability to communicate, they can work on that for you.”

Another interesting focus for therapists is voice therapy for members of the trans community. People are helped to modulate their voices in a way they feel best suits them, she says.

“If you’ve grown up speaking like a female, you’ll get supported to develop more male forms of speech.”

Speech therapy has a broad range of applications, Byrne says.

“Speech therapists work in education and health – they would be the two major employment areas in New Zealand. They are also specialists in swallowing disorders.”

Swallowing disorders are physical in nature, she says, and often due to a stroke or another type of neurological trauma or disorder.

When someone is referred to a speech therapist – usually through a Plunket nurse, school or their GP – an initial assessment is made, depending on what the problem is perceived to be.

The mechanical skills, such as making speech sounds and articulation, knowledge of semantics and syntax and ability to make word stories are also assessed, she says.

“Sometimes we have a receptive speech problem so the understanding of language is poor, or you might have an expressive speech problem, where your ability to express yourself through language is poor. Sometimes you can have both.”

Speech language therapist Joanne Byrne

Speech language therapist Joanne Byrne Photo: Supplied

Parents and therapists can identify developmental speech problems in a child normatively – for example, a baby should be able to say their first word by 12 months, by 18 months they should have about 50 words and be starting to put them together sequentially to make simple phrases, Byrne says.

Hearing issues, a history of communication problems within a family, and other environmental factors, can be factors in a child’s lack of verbalising.

It is important to address the issue as an inability to communicate effectively will begin to create behavioural difficulties too, she says.

“They’ll be the babies and toddlers that are frustrated and angry, lashing out and getting into trouble, because they don’t have any other way of communicating.”

Being born with a cleft palate will also affect a child's speech development.

"If you’ve got problems with your palate, all of your sounds come through your nose and your voice sounds really nasally,” she says.

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Photo: 123RF

Treatment for disfluency (most commonly, stuttering) is another significant aspect of speech therapy.

Byrne suggests this condition could be inherited, as the literature suggests there is often a family link.

“A lot of children will go through a normal period of child disfluency when their speech demands become greater, they might start being a bit disfluent but that usually passes.

“If you have a little one that’s being stuttering for more than six months or a little one that’s stuttering with a family history, or if they're stuttering means they’re getting upset by it, it’s really important to intervene.”

Stuttering is considered a motor-speech and neurological disorder that can have a profoundly negative effect on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the sufferer – which makes the problem worse.

“It’s related to the motor movements of speech, but it does have a neurological basis and over time the pattern becomes habitual. It can be because you are stuttering and getting attention for that and becoming very aware of it that you can get psychological impacts from the communication disability.”

Improving disfluency involves slowing the speech patterns down, retraining the sufferer to breathe and remove ‘bumps’ and blockages and trapped tension that cause it.

Sometimes counselling and support around the psychological impacts are offered at the same time, Byrne says.

“It isn’t something that goes away but with a lot of support you can manage.”

Whereas a disfluency sufferer could require years of support, a childhood lisp is one of the less difficult speech problems to resolve and can improve after just one session with a speech therapist, she says.

The work of a speech-language therapist is to help people of all ages communicate as best as they can, Byrne says.

When necessary, they also offer alternatives to verbal communication such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), which the late scientist Stephen Hawking used to verbalise his thoughts.

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