“All those things you said to me in school, I can still hear them playing in my head”

It’s Better Hearing and Speech Month—a perfect time to acknowledge speech-language pathologists and audiologists for what they do to ensure students have the resources and tools to do well in school and in life.

This year’s theme is “Communication: The Key to Connection,” and it pretty much sums up the role these specialized instructional support personnel play in the lives of children with speech language impairment or deafness.

Out of every 1,000 school-age children, 131 have some degree of hearing loss, according to the National Health Interview Survey. While most people who develop hearing loss are 60 or older, 15 to 18 percent of those with hearing loss developed it from birth through age 19.

The Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Act calls for hearing screening of babies by the age of 1 month, confirmation of their status by 3 months, and enrollment in an early intervention program by 6 months for babies who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Children with speech language impairment or deafness can be isolated without early intervention. So it’s crucial that schools have enough specialists to meet students’ academic, communication, and social-emotional needs. But in a 2012 survey by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), 47 percent of speech language pathologists reported shortages in their schools.

“There’s such a demand for our services and there just aren’t enough of us to meet it,” says Carol Fleming, a speech language pathologist at Pulaski Heights Middle School in Little Rock and NEA State Director.

Carol fell hard for the field when she took her first sign language class as a college junior, and quickly switched her major from occupational therapy. “I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.’ “

She proudly talks about the student she had eight years ago who went to culinary school and is now a chef. He came back to school recently, and they talked for an hour about his plans to open his own food truck. “He already has his menu ideas and really has things in place. He told me, ‘All those things you said to me in school, I can still hear them playing in my head.’”

Carol began a career in health care as a master clinician in dementia and Alzheimer’s management. But when drastic changes in the field resulted in her being the only clinician for six nursing homes, she decided to take a 40-percent pay cut to become an educator. That was 18 years ago. “I’ve never looked back.”

“People tend to think all we do is speech, but language encompasses so much more,” says Carol, who is one of only 14 ASHA Fellows—the highest honor the professional organization can bestow—in the state of Arkansas.

“It’s not only articulation, but pragmatic skills for kids with autism. We’re doing reading literacy. Teaching executive functioning skills. Social language skills. We work closely with physical therapists and occupational therapists. We work on feeding and swallowing. We work on praxis. There is such a wide gamut of disorders that fall under speech and language impairment, hitting upon one or two is only a small fraction of it.”

She loves the variety of work, and she loves her school. Things aren’t perfect in Arkansas, but state law at least mandates a speech language pathologist in each building and limits the caseload to 45 students per pathologist. (In addition, each district must employ or contract with an audiologist.)

But in some states, says Carol, pathologists have 120 students or more. And everywhere, it’s tough for hearing and speech specialists to get the resources they need. That’s why Carol believes advocating is as important as working one-to-one with students, especially when it comes to pushing for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law has never been fully funded, and yet, the number of students enrolled in special education programs has risen 30 percent in the past decade.

Students’ needs will be even harder to meet if Republicans in Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act. The House of Representatives passed a “Robin Hood in reverse” plan that would slash funding from the Medicaid program that serves millions of students with disabilities.  Go to the NEA Legislative Action Center and tell the U.S. Senate to reject this deeply flawed plan.Speech pathologist with child

Ensuring that students get what they need is already tough. In many schools, speech language pathologists are forced to provide treatment “in closets and stairwells” because there’s no other space available. They are great when it comes to speaking out for their students, but they may not realize that speaking up for the resources they need as professionals is integral to their advocacy for students. “Part of what I do is making sure other speech language pathologists find their voice.  We’re supposed to be the communication experts, and so often we don’t speak out for ourselves and what we need.”

So this May, let’s thank the speech and hearing professionals of NEA by voicing our appreciation, respect, and support for what they do. Let’s also do something else for them—and for us: Make sure we know the signs of hearing loss, and get our own hearing checked.

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