Soon-to-be grads reflect during Speech and Hearing Month

Each May, Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC) raises awareness about good communication health during Speech and Hearing Month. This year’s outreach focuses on the role that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and audiologists play in concussion management.

“SAC is highlighting the impact of concussions on people’s communication,” explains Lynn Dempsey, Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics and Director of the Child Language Laboratory. “Because of their impact on memory and attention, concussions can really have a negative effect on people’s ability to communicate in their everyday lives.”

The issue is especially meaningful to Brianna Kuchurean, a 22-year-old honours student from Whitby who has just completed her degree in Speech and Language Sciences in the Department of Applied Linguistics. In the fall, she’ll start work on a graduate degree with hopes to specialize as a medical SLP, working on the relationship between traumatic brain injuries and communication challenges.

Kuchurean recalls that when she had to decide whether to pursue a clinical or research degree, a conversation with an SLP working with neuropsychologists helped her make her choice.

“Not only was I able to have conversations with my professors about my goals, but I was given the opportunity to get in contact with various professionals working within the field,” she says.

But Kuchurean’s first contact with SLPs came at a much younger age.

“The field was introduced to me in my own home with a younger brother who was receiving therapy,” she says. “I was given a first-hand opportunity to observe my brother’s everyday struggles and watch the impact of speech and language intervention on not only my brother’s quality of life, but my whole family’s quality of life.”

“Speech and hearing disorders have profound effects on people,” Dempsey notes. “Everyday interactions become extremely challenging for people with difficulties communicating, preventing them from performing well at work, asking for help, hearing instructions at school and developing friendships.”

Dempsey says that though many people take communication health for granted, disorders are not uncommon. Amongst Canadian preschoolers, for example, eight to 12 per cent of children experience a language impairment.

“When we have communication health, we are able to effectively send and receive messages in ways that enable us to learn, express our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and create and build relationships,” Dempsey explains. “Communication disorders have a significant effect on people’s well-being in all kinds of ways — emotional, social, physical, vocational — really, all aspects of their lives.”

Students in Applied Linguistics can study Speech and Language Sciences or Hearing Sciences in preparation for graduate programs in Speech-Language Pathology, studying communication disorders related to language, or Audiology, studying hearing and balance disorders. Some students also decide to pursue post-graduate diplomas to become Communication Disorder Assistants.

Alison Dykstra, a 21-year-old honours student from Fonthill who has also just completed her undergraduate degree in Speech and Language Sciences, will start a graduate program next fall to become a Speech-Language Pathologist.

She says that though she has always had a passion for both teaching and science, her professors helped inspire her to choose her career path.

“Throughout my undergraduate degree, I took an abundance of hands-on courses that provided me with a great deal of knowledge relating to communication disorders, assessment and treatment,” says Dykstra. “Most of these courses were taught by professors who were or had been registered SLPs and were truly experts in the field.”

Dempsey is one of those professors, having worked as a SLP for a year between completing her master’s degree and beginning a PhD program. Inspired by course placements and summer jobs she completed while a student, Dempsey now ensures that her courses offer students the chance to see the work of SLPs up close.

“In my third-year Child Language Disorders course, one assignment involves analyzing a conversation between an adult and a child by figuring out things like the average length of the child’s sentences, the number of different words the child uses and developing goals and treatment activities,” says Dempsey. “This year, students designed activities to help a child learn to produce regular past tense endings — saying, ‘yesterday, he walked’ instead of ‘yesterday, he walk,’ for example.”

Dempsey also notes that students interested in how speech and language are affected by brain health have some unique opportunities in the department’s programs, including a fourth-year course in Clinical Observation of Communication Disorders taught by clinicians at the Niagara Peninsula Children’s Centre. In that class, “students engage in video-taped analysis of assessment and intervention activities for people with a variety of speech, language, hearing and swallowing disorders.”

Following convocation in June, both Kuchurean and Dykstra are keen to continue into their graduate work and their future careers in a field that Kuchurean describes as “amazing” and that Dykstra believes is “incredibly rewarding.”

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