THE ABILITY to communicate is one of the most important skills available to the human race.
But when it is damaged by illness or injury it can have catastrophic effects on an individual’s confidence and sense of self-worth.
It will surprise many that around 20 per cent of people in Britain have speech and language therapy at some point in their lives, from babies to pensioners and for a wide variety of reasons.
These can range from conditions that people are born with to illnesses and traumas such as brain injuries suffered in later life.
Then there are disorders like stuttering and stammering – as highlighted recently by hit movie The King’s Speech.
As the website of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCLST) informs us: “Problems with speech and language imprison the individual and severely limit their participation in family life, the community, education and the world of work.”
Yet planned cutbacks in the National Health Service could see this vital service facing cuts so the RCLST is running a campaign, called Giving Voice, to ensure its safety.
The Neurological Enablement Service (NES), based at Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust in Fulwood, deals with up to 400 people a month, around half of whom see a speech and language therapist.
It is one of several services that deliver speech and language therapy in the city, including others which work within schools and nurseries, hospitals and nursing homes. In all there are around a hundred therapists in Sheffield.
Lynn Burscough and Kelly Anderson are two of the team at the NES.
They work with other professionals such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists in order to try and improve the lives of people with neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Team leader Lynn started her training straight after leaving school in Hampshire and after a variety of jobs around the country settled down in Sheffield in 2001.
“I was always Interested in languages and science and wanted to do something helping people. That’s one of the things that appealed to me,’’ she says, adding that the job is more complex than people imagine.
“There are psychological aspects, medical aspects, linguistic and language aspects and of course the social side of communication.”
“There are more speech and language therapists than you might think, having a much wider impact than you would imagine. People just aren’t aware of the impact communication difficulties can have on a large amount of the population. That’s the point we’re trying to get across with the Giving Voice campaign.”
Kelly previously worked in a brain injury unit where she “saw the difference speech therapy could make to people’s lives,” and has now been working in Sheffield for two years.
Half her work nowadays involves people with brain injuries. Their communication difficulties ‘can seem a bit hidden’ with the full extent of the damage not being apparent as often the patients do not have any outward physical signs of disability.
One problem of this type is aphasia in which the ability to pronounce words is not affected but understanding what’s said and getting your message across can be difficult.
Although the damage caused by neurological diseases can be permanent, the therapists use a variety of methods to help people cope and for those with degenerative disorders they help people to find ways to continue to get the best from their speech.
One person who has been treated by the service is James, aged 69, who lives in Fulwood. The former company managing director was settling down to retirement when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a neurological disorder with symptoms including stiffness, tremors, fatigue and slowness of movement. As well as this his speech started deteriorating, as he began stammering regularly for the first time since childhood and then lost loudness until his voice was often little more than a whisper.
This affected his confidence and the normally extrovert character stopped speaking at family meetings and the regular free and easy events he attends, where his speciality was telling jokes. Although the other members of the group were very understanding he still found it difficult. “If your timing goes, everything goes.”
He was referred by his GP to NES for Speech and Language Therapy and had a course of Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT) a treatment specifically designed for Parkinson’s sufferers, although it is also used for other disorders.
I thought it was very good,” he said, adding that part of the treatment involved him going out and telling jokes to people.
“With Parkinson’s you tend to speak in a quiet voice. You think it’s normal but it’s not really. After the therapy you think you’re talking in a loud voice but it’s quite normal.”
His wife Roberta added: “He’s always been a confident person but his voice is much better now when he makes an effort. He knows now what to do.”
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has been running a year-long campaign called Giving Voice, in a bid to raise awareness of the work done by Speech and Language Therapy services such as this.
The campaign has already involved a lobby of Parliament and local events in Sheffield, while the near future sees a reception and awards ceremony taking place at Sheffield University where one of the country’s leading Speech and Language Therapy researchers, Professor Pam Enderby, is based.
Further information about the Giving Voice campaign is available at givingvoiceuk.org
Hi-tech ways lead from the front
Technology can make a huge difference to those battling to overcome speech difficulties.
Equipment advances have made a big impact on speech and language therapy compared to the ‘absolutely minute’ service offered when the NHS started doing speech therapy in 1936, but it is not relevant to all cases.
“Most are in the position where they need some help and technology is not always the answer,” says team leader Lynn Burscough.
“However some children may have little potential for speech from birth and so are supported to communicate using equipment.
“And then there are those who because of brain injury or the later stages of something like motor neurone disease can no longer speak at all, but the majority aren’t in that position.
“With more support and more input they can be helped to be more effective communicators.”
Kelly Anderson adds: “We can’t fix people but we can help them to maximise their potential. It feels with the changes in the NHS at the moment that speech and language therapy is perhaps under threat.
“But it can transform lives. Communication is so important to people’s wellbeing, health and quality of life.”
SPEECH therapists sometimes have to deal with problems other than just a person’s ability to talk.
They also help people with eating, drinking and swallowing difficulties.
Ray, aged 59, was born with cerebral palsy which affects his movement and speech, but despite what others may see as severe handicaps he leads a full life, making his own classical music CDs, singing in a barbershop choir and watching Sheffield Wednesday.
However a period of illness nearly put paid to it all and Ray, who lives in a city care home, needed help from Lynn to be able to eat and drink safely once more. “I got very poorly and had a tube in my stomach for two years. I almost died,”
And even after the illness cleared up: “I had to learn to swallow again. The therapy helped me a lot.” Now he is grateful that he can enjoy his beloved hot curries once more.