The ASHA LeaderLive Academics and Research August 2021

From My Perspective/Opinion: Advancing Justice, Equity in the Pipeline to the Professions

Reconfiguring graduate training program admissions is key to foundational change.

August 5, 2021
Four scenarios of two people trying to pick apples from a tree.
Tony Ruth, @lunchbreath

How can we promote a foundational change to center equity and social justice in communication sciences and disorders (CSD)?

In a discipline that does not represent the full diversity of the people we serve or of the U.S. population, we—members of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee of the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CAPCSD)—are committed to helping make our professions as diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just as possible.

The journey is challenging. Yet we can all position ourselves as change agents and transformative leaders in the recruitment and admissions processes at our institutions.

Understanding key terms

Before we offer action steps, we begin with establishing common ground in understanding the meaning of diversity, (in)equality, equity (vs. equality), and justice. We hope you find these definitions useful in facilitating conversation about these terms. The illustration that opens this article demonstrates these differences.

Diversity refers to the presence of individual and group differences (for example, race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, class, ability), as well as critical intersections of these identities (see sources). However, it is entirely possible to increase diversity in CSD without effecting needed change in systems, policies, and procedures that perpetuate inequality.

For instance, the total number of U.S. doctoral degree recipients who identify as Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) has increased, but without proportional growth in the diversity of faculty (see sources). Also, merely increasing diversity does not fundamentally alter the experience of marginalized members.

Inequality refers to unequal access to opportunities, with extension of privilege to those already having clear advantages. For example, academic programs that use the GRE in their admissions process expressly disadvantage students from marginalized backgrounds. Such tests become a gatekeeping mechanism, working against increased diversification. Rather than predicting students’ future higher-education success, the GRE more reliably indicates race and gender (see sources). It also selects against socio-economically disadvantaged people.

Conversely, equality means that opportunities and resources are equally distributed, regardless of historic inequities or differential needs—but, as the illustration demonstrates, equality doesn’t necessarily provide equal access. One flawed assumption is that existing systems are strictly merit-based and that all people have equal access to higher education, mentoring, professional development, recognition, and leadership opportunities.

For example, any scholar may apply for competitive NIH research grants, but Black principal investigators (PIs) are much less likely to receive funding than PIs who are White, Asian, or Hispanic/Latinx, according to analyses (see sources).

Contrasted with equality, equity calls for differentiated allocation of resources to level the playing field and address inequality resulting from structural racism and discrimination. For example, providing need-based application-fee waivers removes a barrier facing historically underrepresented students. Similarly, intentional and proactive advising and mentorship are critical for ensuring the success of minoritized students and new clinicians (see sources).

Finally, justice refers to changing dysfunctional structures and providing everyone access to opportunities and resources needed for success. Social justice scholar Lee Anne Bell described social justice as “a process and a goal.” The process involves democratic participation of stakeholders, affirmation and inclusion of minoritized voices and perspectives, and collaboration for change.

For example, if CSD clinicians and scientists seek to better serve people with communication disorders, they should also challenge barriers and advocate for change in educational and health care systems.

Action steps

If you are ready to get started, but feel daunted by where to begin, here are some suggestions for academic programs:

  • Complete a critical equity audit of your academic program—an internal review of policies and practices that do not serve underrepresented students or faculty.
  • Design admissions processes to be equitable and inclusive by eliminating biased measures and clearly stating application evaluation criteria (see sources).
  • Deliver a culturally responsive curriculum in training programs and in professional development for practitioners (for example, include content on disability rights, examine health and educational inequities, feature work of BIPOC authors/researchers).
  • Use holistic and culturally sustaining teaching methods and assessments (such as specifications grading, which outlines what is required to meet expectations, with no complex rubrics describing multiple levels of mastery or negotiating over the letter grade of a work product—students have either met the assignment expectations or they have not).
  • Use best practices and models of organizational change, such as in John Kotter’s book, “Leading Change,” that outline stages for instituting short- and long-term changes.
  • Engage with DEI committees at your institution, CAPCSD, ASHA and other professional organizations.

The trail toward increased justice in the professions entails challenges, deliberate planning, and hard work. Yet we must forge ahead to realize a stronger future.

Nidhi Mahendra, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor and chair of the Department of Communicative Disorders and Sciences at San Jose State University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity[email protected]

Teresa M. Girolamo, PhD, is a T32 postdoctoral trainee at the University of Connecticut, where her research aims to advance equity and inclusion in CSD. [email protected]

Danai Kasambira Fannin, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at North Carolina Central University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity[email protected]

DEI Committee members Lauren Bland, PhD, CCC-SLP; Jamila Harley, MEd, CCC-SLP; and Kerry Mandulak, PhD, CCC-SLP, contributed to editing this article, based in part on a presentation at the 2021 CAPCSD Annual Conference.


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Bell, L. A. (2007). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds). Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd Edition; pp. 1-15). New York: Taylor & Francis.

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Mandulak, K. C., Fannin, D. K., & Taylor, J. (October 2020). Considerations for inclusive and equitable admissions processes. CAPCSD Member Webinar.

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U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups 2018 (NCES 2019-038).

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Additional Resources


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