One out of every six Americans needs some help with speech and language skills
Living in the remote, mountainous seaside town of Cordova, Alaska, a three-year-old autistic boy was fortunate to receive loving therapy from his school district’s lone speech-language pathologist (SLP), Lynn Hopkins. Fourteen years later, after shepherding him through his entire school career, Hopkins was thrilled to attend the boy’s high school graduation.
The teenager was just one of hundreds of students touched by Hopkins, who is completing her master’s degree through The Fischler College of Education and Human Services’ online speech-language and communications program.
When she first arrived in Alaska, Hopkins worked as a speech therapist for the Southeast Island School District, based in Ketchikan. Bringing speech therapy to students was a risky business: Hopkins was flown by small planes into logging camps and villages throughout the district.
A year later Hopkins moved to Cordova with her new husband, Jack, a local commercial fisherman. At the same time, schools across the nation were scrambling to comply with new laws requiring services for the disabled. Alaskan schools, flush with oil money, were fortunate to have well-funded special education programs. Hopkins landed a job as a special education teacher with the Cordova Public School District, and within six months she was chosen to run a speech therapy program for the district’s more than 400 K-12 students.
Throughout her career at the school district, Hopkins has worked with children from preschool through 12th grade with a wide range of challenges, including autism and other language articulation and learning disabilities. She has served children with Downs’ Syndrome, cochlear implant and hearing loss, cleft palate, muscular dystrophy, stuttering and voice disorders, severe attention deficit, and traumatic brain injury.
Throughout it all, she’s found her work challenging, interesting, and rewarding. Watching her autistic student graduate from high school was one of the most satisfying highlights of her career.
“He graduated with his class,” she said. “It was pretty exciting.”
When new academic compliances were introduced for Alaska’s educators a few years ago, Hopkins was hard-pressed to find a way to complete a master’s degree in her specialty. Cordova’s remote location and her job demands posed what seemed like insurmountable obstacles. Then she discovered a solution through The Fischler College’s online program.
Using a full complement of distance learning technology, Hopkins was enabled to experience online therapy during the clinical portion of her program. Through a sophisticated teleconference setup, Hopkins provided literacy and vocabulary training to a 12-year-old boy in Florida, under the guidance of an onsite faculty therapist.
“My experience with Fischler’s online program made me think about how we could serve some of the northern villages here, where the children don’t have access to therapy,” she said. “Because of the oil money, many of these villages have lots of technology."
Due to retire from the school district in a year, Hopkins is considering the establishment of a private practice to serve a growing demand for therapy for the village children as well the area’s an aging population.
The need for speech-language therapy is ageless and growing. Across the nation in Florida, another Fischler College graduate has seen the field explode in other ways. Bonnie Emerson, who received her master’s degree in speech-language and communication disorders from NSU in 1994, remembers being in such demand when she graduated that potential employers across the country were recruiting her heavily.
After interviewing in Missouri, North and South Carolina, and Panama City, Florida, Emerson decided to settle in her hometown of Fort Lauderdale to complete her fellowship at Hollywood Medical Center, in nearby Hollywood, Florida.
Originally focused on work with children, Emerson quickly found her passion in the hospital setting instead. She recalls during one of her externships working with a young man who was in a gang fight and had his skull crushed.
“His skull looked like a melon that had been dropped on the ground,” she recalled. “I saw his prom photo on the wall of his room and knew I could make a difference in his life. It was rewarding work.”
This experience showed her the value of helping people relearn simple daily skills most people take for granted. Emerson quickly saw the merit of her career choice as she helped a teenage trauma victim go from a coma to walking and talking again, or showing a patient whose voicebox had been removed how to speak again with a special speaking valve, or helping a stroke victim learn how to swallow.
In 1998, working at another hospital, the 459-bed Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Emerson pursued special training in the care of laryngectomee patients. She developed a niche to help these patients learn how to use a modern special prosthesis that allows them to speak in a more natural voice.
Through her working experience, she has seen a major shift in the attitude of doctors toward speech therapists, along with the growing demand for her services.
“In the past, physical therapists were always consulted first with stroke patients,” Emerson said. “Now, speech therapists are also called in with stroke victims to ensure they can swallow foods and liquids safely.
“Decades ago, stroke victims might have died of pneumonia because their food would go down the wrong pipe and caregivers didn’t recognize what was happening. Today, there is more awareness and health care providers are seeing the value of our services. We work closely with all the other therapists on such areas as the intake of thickening liquids, appropriate exercises, and modifying positions.”
According to Emerson, there’s also been a dramatic increase in salaries in recent years due to the heightened awareness and demand for the skills of speech-language therapists.
“Today’s salaries are more comparable with other therapists and nurses,” she said. “Recruiting experienced therapists remains a challenge, and raising salaries is one way to attract and retain qualified professionals.”
Attracting qualified professionals also demands access to needed degree programs. Dr. Wren Newman, associate dean, programs in speech-language and communications disorders at The Fischler College, has seen a 100 percent placement rate among her approximately 120 graduates each year.
“There is a critical shortage nationally,” she said. “People who are living longer need rehabilitative services, and children with communications issues, such as autism, are being identified earlier. There’s no question that a gap exists, and must be filled.”