You have accessThe ASHA Leader ArchiveStudent's Say1 May 2016

Our Clients Are Diverse: Why Aren’t We?

Surprised by the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among students in her speech-language pathology programs, this graduate student offers some advice for her peers.

    In high school I surrounded myself with friends from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

    I was intrigued that my friend’s mother, who was Punjabi Indian, substituted /v/ for /w/. I wanted to be able to code-switch like my classmates—one whose parents were Mexican immigrants or another who had moved to the United States from Korea. I was fascinated by the English of my band partner, whose mother was Jamaican but who grew up speaking Spanish in Panama, her father’s native country. At home, I analyzed (and often poked fun at) how my New York-born parents spoke differently from my Southern neighbors and friends. Studying Spanish further fueled my passion for language and culture.

    Speech-language pathology was the perfect match for me: a career that married my passions for language and culture. When I began college, however, I quickly realized that cultural diversity seemed to be missing in the profession. The lack of fellow racial/ethnic minority students in my undergraduate communication sciences and disorders (CSD) program perplexed me, but I concluded my program was simply a reflection of campus-wide homogeneity.

    When I began graduate school at a university that boasts one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, I realized the homogeneity that I encountered as an undergrad extended far beyond a campus-wide lack of diversity. As I gain more experience, I realize that lack of diversity is more than a college-specific or even a regional issue.

    ASHA data indicate that minority enrollment for the 2013–2014 academic year was 10.1 percent for audiology entry-level programs, 15.8 percent for speech-language pathology programs, and 15.6 percent for communication sciences and disorders PhD programs.

    It seemed that the very things that attracted me to CSD—the opportunity to understand and celebrate diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds—were absent from the field itself.

    Just under 8 percent of ASHA members and affiliates self-identify as racial minorities, and 4.7 percent self-identify as Hispanic. Additionally, only 5 percent of ASHA members and affiliates self-identify as bilingual service providers.

    It seemed that the very things that attracted me to CSD—the opportunity to understand and celebrate diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds—were absent from the field itself. Why are there so few racial/ethnic minority SLPs and audiologists, especially as this country’s demographics are rapidly changing? Are minorities unaware of the field? Are they not interested in it? Are they encountering barriers to entering the field?

    I don’t know all the answers, but I can offer some advice to minority students seeking to become audiologists and SLPs.

    There will be awkward moments. Learn how to handle them with grace. It’s bound to happen once or twice. As a minority interested in bilingual speakers and non-mainstream English dialects, I have had awkward and uncomfortable conversations about working with minority clients. For example, I have learned there are many misconceptions about African-American English—the most common is that it is “incorrect” grammar, rather than a rule-governed English dialect. I know that some of my peers are not as interested as I am in learning about multicultural language acquistion, but I feel this knowledge is critical to diagnosing and treating communication disorders in linguistically diverse speakers.

    I think the best way to tackle these comments is to take advantage of the opportunity to educate. Encourage your peers to consider biases that they may have when treating linguistically diverse speakers. Even if it may be necessary to refer to another professional with expertise in a different language or dialect, it is every SLP’s responsibility to serve every client. Having these difficult conversations can help to dispel misconceptions and encourage clinicians to open their minds to grow and adapt to diverse communication demands.

    Find a mentor. I am forever grateful for my mentor, Seles, who I met at the end of my undergraduate studies and who exposed me to many opportunities for SLPs. Having an African-American mentor really helped me to see that there is a place for other African-American women in this field. Having a mentor with shared experiences is one of the main reasons why I chose to continue on to graduate school. Sometimes, as a minority, you have experiences that your cohort may not share, which can feel isolating. A mentor with a personal understanding of the unique issues associated with being a person of color may help you negotiate the awkward moments and challenging situations, give you insight into finding a job, and brainstorm ways to make a difference in the field.

    I think the best way to tackle these [uncomfortable] comments is to take advantage of the opportunity to educate. Encourage your peers to consider biases that they may have when treating linguistically diverse speakers.

    Get involved. Consider participating in CSD organizations that connect you with other minorities. ASHA has several, such as the Minority Student Leadership Program and the S.T.E.P. (Student to Empowered Professional) Mentoring program. I have a S.T.E.P. mentor who has shared invaluable information about bilingualism.

    ASHA members have formed several multicultural constituency groups: Native American Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, Asian Indian Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus. The National Black Association for Speech-Language and Hearing, an independent organization, hosts its own annual convention. I am an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity.

    All provide networking opportunities and keep you informed of current CSD-related issues and needs in minority communities. For a more informal way to network, search Facebook for minority CSD groups. I particularly enjoy Sisters in Speech Therapy and Audiology, and I met up with several members of the group at the ASHA 2015 Convention in Denver.

    Spread the word. As a minority graduate student, seek opportunities to encourage young minorities to become CSD professionals. ASHA is working to raise awareness of the professions among middle and high school students, teachers and guidance counselors, but many high school students—including minorities—don’t know about CSD. Many of my minority friends did not become interested in the field until the end of college. At that point, some became discouraged by the requirements and competitive nature of graduate school.

    Devoting many years to becoming an audiologist or SLP can be a long and expensive ordeal. After earning a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, the added expenses of post-baccalaureate and graduate coursework prevent many students—including minorities—from choosing a CSD career. Additionally, it may be financially impossible for someone with an unrelated bachelor’s degree to take a gap year to build a competitive resume (one with observation experience and involvement in programs for people with communication disorders) to boost the chances of grad school acceptance. These factors may contribute to homogeneity in the field that extends beyond race and ethnicity to socioeconomic status.

    It is not impossible to enter the CSD field after studying a different major or working in a different field. However, it is much easier to enter this field at the undergraduate level. Although many of us considered becoming a doctor, nurse or physical therapist in high school, few of us considered speech-language pathology or audiology. If we encourage young minorities to learn about the professions in high school, perhaps they will be better informed both financially and strategically to be a competitive candidate for graduate school.

    Stick with it. The stress of graduate school may make you question your path. Know that minorities are vital to the field to advocate for the needs of minority communities and to serve as cultural brokers. Culture largely influences communication. We can’t implement best practices with racially/ethnically diverse clients without all clinicians understanding the diversity of communication. Ethnically/racially diverse minorities can advance that goal by advocating for clients, serving as cultural brokers, and facilitating some of the difficult conversations that will help educate and grow our colleagues with different perspectives and experiences.

    Although it may not be what I initially expected, the field of speech-language pathology is one of the greatest. The opportunities across work settings, disorders addressed and populations served are endless. CSD has an immense need and a place for racial/ethnic minorities, like me, to help meet the needs of people with communication disorders.

    Author Notes

    Jacquelynne C. Rodriguez will graduate from Georgia State University this summer with a master’s in communication sciences and disorders. She has been a graduate research assistant in the university’s Urban Child Study Center and the Georgia Learning Disabilities Research Hub. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity.

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