How do people with disability utilise speech pathology?

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Speech pathology is a specialised field that provides support for people with communication disorders or communication disabilities.

Key points

  • Speech pathologists study, diagnose and treat a range of communication disorders and disabilities, as well as swallowing difficulties
  • There is a focus on both verbal and non-verbal communication solutions
  • Issues with speech can be congenital, developmental, caused by accident or injury, or related to a degenerative disease

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2015 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC), reports an estimated 1.2 million Australians live with a communication disability.

However, there are a wide range of reasons why someone with a disability would visit a speech pathologist, whether it is for an assessment, diagnosis or treatment.

It is a profession that benefits people with a disability or people who have difficulties with speaking, listening, reading, writing or swallowing food and drink safely.

What is speech pathology?

Speech pathology is the study of the causes, effects and treatment of communication disorders. The term speech therapy can also be used, although it is not as broad a term

Experts in the field, referred to as speech pathologists, are health professionals who provide diagnosis and treatment of various communication conditions.

Speech Pathology Australia’s Senior Advisor Disability, Amy Fitzpatrick, says it is an important profession benefitting many people with disability.

“Speech pathologists work to give people with communication disability a voice and are often the first allied health professional to come into contact with many families going through the process of understanding that their child has a developmental delay or a disability,” Ms Fitzpatrick says.

“Speech pathologists are also the experts in assessing swallowing and eating and drinking, which we know is a life or death issue.”

The work of a speech pathologist is highly specialised, focusing on:

  • Helping a person develop and achieve their own communication and swallowing goals
  • Improving speech clarity or learning how to make sounds or signs
  • Understanding concepts and spoken words
  • Using pictures or a communication device to communicate
  • How to have a two-way conversation
  • Finding the best way to manage eating and drinking safely, enjoyably, and independently
  • Helping the support network around the individual to build their awareness and skill level to best interact with the person and support them in achieving these goals
  • Educating the wider community about the impacts of communication and swallowing needs, and showing others how to be inclusive of all abilities and different ways of communicating and eating or drinking

Who accesses a speech pathologist?

Patients of a speech pathologist are incredibly varied. Some children, adults and older Australians may need to visit a speech pathologist at some point in their life to help with communication or swallowing issues.

Communication disorders and disabilities can also occur at varying levels of severity. It could be a stutter, developmental delay, intellectual disability, stroke or other condition that leads you to seek out help.

For example, you may be a parent searching for support to help your child with a developmental delay or stutter. Or, you may be a parent of a child with communication or swallowing difficulties linked to Cerebral Palsy, Autism or Down Syndrome.

Some communication disorders may also appear later in life and are linked to dementia or Parkinson’s disease. It is important to remember that speech pathology is available to anyone with issues communicating or swallowing.

Coaching and support is often just as beneficial for parents, families and support workers, as they can provide tailored support.

You can learn more about who accesses a speech pathologist in our consumer article, ‘A challenge for the whole family – Nat and Jess’ story’.

How does a speech pathologist help disabilities?

Speech pathology provides a wide range of solutions, treatments and support services – also often referred to as interventions.

It is a diverse industry that caters for different abilities, with interventions tailored to suit each individual’s needs.

Common speech pathology interventions include:

  • Teaching key word sign language or how to use a communication app/device to a child and their support networks so the person can be understood and better participate in different environments independently
  • Helping someone understand and use verbal speech, as well as supplementing this with visual material as needed -particularly in times of differing sensory, physical or emotional demands
  • Explaining the unspoken social rules that neurotypical people use in conversation in an accessible way if the autistic person wants to understand more about this process
  • Collaborating with other allied health professionals to make sure goals are being met
  • Co-educating support and families to ensure the best communication style is used
  • Co-creating a meal-time management plan with a participant and helping the participant, support workers, staff and other people in that person’s support team learn how to make meal times safe and enjoyable

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits all solution when it comes to speech pathology.

You will be assessed as an individual by your speech pathologist, or team of specialists, to determine the best intervention for you and the long term tools you need to achieve success.

Can I access speech pathology on the NDIS?

Speech pathologist services are available under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and are also accessible under the Early Childhood Early Intervention (ECEI) scheme.

The ECEI is a specific support program for children up to the age of six who have a disability or developmental delay.

Not only are speech pathology services covered by the NDIS, but you should be able to use funds for assistive technologies to aid alternative communication.

You can either go through your NDIS provider to find a speech pathologist, but you will need a referral if you want to access funding on your NDIS plan.

If you source an independent private speech pathologist, you may not always require a referral. It is best to contact them directly with any questions.

Additionally, public speech pathologist services are available without a referral through hospitals, community health centres and outreach services. Public speech pathology services are often provided by the government and not-for-profit organisations, although you must meet specific criteria to be eligible.

Have you utilised the services of a speech pathologist in the past? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

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Early Childhood Early Intervention
Consumer story: A challenge for the whole family – Nat and Jess’ story
Development Delay