A dear friend of mine, Sarah, is a school speech pathologist. Her position is also referred to as a speech therapist. During her years working with students she has come across numerous interesting challenges but none touched her the way Navi did. Navi was a student from Sri Lanka. In addition to being raised in a non-English speaking area and before he was transferred to an American public school, he also had medical problems that were making it impossible for him to speak. The most prominent medical issue was a severe cleft palate that had been untreated in his home country. In fact, his mother moved to America hoping to find treatment for her son. Other medical problems exacerbated the issue making speech acquisition almost impossible for the child. When my friend first encountered him, he was already in sixth grade.
Typically, students in public education with speech problems are not also ESOL. This did make the process more difficult because the student had only limited understanding of the English language. It required a team of teachers, an ESOL specialist, as well as Sarah to formulate an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The part Sara played was in teaching him to make sounds even with his medical problems as well as giving him alternative ways to communicate until surgery could be performed to make the speech process easier.
As with many children with extreme cleft palates, Navi had begun to communicate using a series of grunts and gestures. The various grunts evolve because it is not possible for children with cleft palates to make sounds normally and yet they still long to communicate with their family and other people they are surrounded by daily. Unfortunately, the family was not aware that this tendency to communicate through grunts and/or growls could actually hinder his ability to acquire speech, and thus allowed it to continue into his teens. This is often a very difficult habit for children to break, and it proved to be quite difficult for Navi to overcome.
Because of the extreme situation, and Navi’s inability to communicate at all with his teachers or fellow students, Sarah enrolled him in an elective sign language class. While this is an extreme measure, it did allow him to learn to communicate basic needs and desires with his teachers and classmates quickly. Within a week, he was able to ask to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and able to ask for help when he needed it. This slight improvement made a world of difference to Navi who began to come out of his reclusive shell and get to know the other students.
In addition, Sarah also began to work on breathing techniques and teaching Navi specific sounds and sound blends. This was a long process, but by his senior year, he was able to understand and communicate with his peers and teachers. Because his mother had not been able to afford the surgery, Navi’s speech was not what would be considered normal, but it was greatly improved.
Sometimes, no matter how much effort a speech pathologist exerts, a patient’s speech will never be completely normal. Therefore, this should not be the goal. Instead, a focus on making communication easier should be the primary focus. This will guarantee a positive result for the student and a rewarding experience for the speech pathologist.
Building Blocks Photo Credit: Valerie Everett http://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/3474584087/