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Speech therapists left speechless for awareness week

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Southern DHB Speech and Language Therapists are challenging themselves to walk in the shoes of some of their clients this week, giving up the use of their voices or the taste of their favourite foods in an effort to raise awareness of communication and swallowing disorders.

The Giving Voice Aotearoa Week of Action is running from 16-22 September and many Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) across Dunedin and Southland have set themselves a personal ‘40 Hour Challenge’.

Some SLTs will spend 40 hours communicating using only non-verbal methods. The team have access to a variety of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) options, frequently used by people with speech and language difficulties. Some of these include communication charts, iPads, alphabet boards, eye-gaze boards, as well as more traditional methods such as writing, drawing and gesture.

Southern DHB Speech Language Therapist Amy Rosenfeld says it’s important to understand supporting people with communication difficulties is something that everyone can do. 

“Communicating with someone who has a communication difficulty involves changing our behaviour. Much in the same way as we might support someone with a physical disability to access environments, we can help people with communication difficulties.”

Often this involves giving more time, limiting background noise, speaking slowly or using the AAC options the person has with them, says Ms Rosenfeld. “Supporting your message with gestures, facial expression or writing key words can also help some people. If you can see someone is having difficulty and you’re not sure how to help, just ask.”
Another important aspect of the SLT role is to support people who have difficulty swallowing. Some SLTs at Dunedin Hospital have taken up the challenge of only eating and drinking modified diets and fluids, such as puree food or thickened drinks. These are often prescribed to people who have dysphagia (swallowing difficulties).  

The SLT team hopes their challenges will not only help to raise awareness, but also give them greater understanding of some of the difficulties their clients face on a daily basis.

“We want people at work and in the community to ask us about what we’re doing and use it as an opportunity to educate and normalise these modifications,” says Ms Rosenfeld.

“Communication and swallowing difficulties impact a wide range of people. Some have challenges from birth, while others have difficulties as a result of a stroke, brain injury, or conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease.”

The Giving Voice Aotearoa is run by the New Zealand Speech Language Therapists Association (NZSTA), which represents the profession of Speech-language Therapy in Aotearoa, as well as providing awareness and advocacy for those affected by communication and related swallowing conditions.

Giving Voice champions in Dunedin can offer advice, support and training to businesses and community groups that are interested in making their environments more accessible.

Did you know?

  • Communication disabilities span a very large group of people who live with conditions including: Tourette’s, stuttering, Parkinson’s, dementia and autism.
  • 16,000 people in New Zealand have aphasia, the inability (or impaired ability) to understand or produce speech, as a result of brain damage or stroke
  • Around 9,000 people suffer a stroke each year in New Zealand and 30% will result in aphasia
  • 10,000 people in New Zealand have Parkinson’s and one of the most common symptoms is speech and swallowing difficulties.