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Dispatches from Linguists: Speech Therapy Observation

By Tiffany Marcum

This month’s dispatch comes from Tiffany Marcum, who takes us through her experiences learning how American Sign Language is used.

I found a job that let me use my special skill – American Sign Language! The position was Habilitation Technician and I would work with adults with serious developmental delays. As new employees, they put us through an extensive 2 day brush up on common signs for our patients. Basic needs like a shower, toilet, eat were covered. In the breaks when the instructor left the room, others showed off extra words like bull crap and jackass. I would say that those patients were more non-verbal than deaf or hard of hearing.

As part of a normal shift, we had to do extensive documentation. The individuals usually had therapeutic speech and/or sign goals. One lady relied on sign language as she only knew neurological grunts. Her daily goal was to mimic signs for “eat” and “toilet”. The signs for which are simple. Eat is a hand motion toward your mouth. A toilet is a shaking of the letter “T” (thumb between index finger, fist. This shows the letter “T” swishing, as in toilet.).

“Dorit, do you need to use the bathroom?” (Closed palm, with the thumb sticking between the index and middle finger, with a wrist twist.)

She leaned forward with a grunt of interest. She stretched out her left palm and banged her right fist against it. After the assisted trip, I asked her one more important question.

“Dorit, are you ready to eat dinner?” (All 4 fingers resting on the thumb, pointed at the mouth, resembling eating.)

With another bounce forward, she replied by tapping 4 fingers against her chin. Staff knew that was her way of saying yes and interpreted the language puzzle successfully.

During different parts of my career, I considered foraying into Communication Sciences and Disorders. That would have entailed more school once again and adding a Master of Science to my Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences. Ultimately, I couldn’t bear the rigorous schedule on top of working full time and a fresh student loan.

For my edification, I emailed a local Speech and Language Therapist about an observation opportunity. I wanted to see what they do in the office day-to-day. Thankfully, she replied, and I met her the following morning.

“Welcome! I am thrilled to have you!” she greeted warmly.

“Thank you! I am very interested in the field.” I followed through a calmly lit and silent office.

“This morning, I have a patient coming in for a hearing and language evaluation. She has a concern about hearing loss because of her career as a hairstylist. The many years of loud hairdryers have weighed on her.”

“Oh. Interesting concept! Career induced hearing and speech loss.”

The first patient entered the almost recording style studio and applied specific headphones. Her back was turned to gauge effectiveness. I watched as the Doctor took her stance with a microphone. The Audiologist read a small list of common words with extreme clarity at different volumes. She was to repeat the word as she processed it. If I would have pursued that career, that meant I would’ve needed a serious diction coach for my Appalachian twang. Then, varying tones were then transmitted at different frequencies. We recorded her response of a quick hand raise as “satisfactory”.

I noticed all the interesting material on the walls. Models of the ear, inner ear, and vocal cords. Colorful charts for children with speech disorders. Speech Pathology had come a long way to give individuals their independence back.

“Are you fluent in sign language? I am pretty knowledgeable.”

“I am not fluent. It’s not a necessity in certain programs.

I left the office that day with more knowledge and knowing that my language skill entered the program. I had a notion that I must master ASL before applying. Some people had discouraged my attempts in Speech Pathology. An acquaintance once told me, “I asked my neighbor who is a Speech Pathologist, and she said you would just be cleaning hearing aides all day.” Not the case at this office.

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