Tuesday, November 14th 2017

Good Communication is the Key to Social Justice

By Lyndal Foy

Lyndal speaks about how communication is the key to empowerment and sustainability, and how communication is a right which is the key to the rest of the rights of life in society. And that is why she is a speech therapist today.

Having attended the evening service on the odd occasion I am aware that you are the group who enjoys silence.

I too enjoy silence although I am here tonight to tell you why being “noisy’ is important too.

Firstly a little about myself. I am not naturally someone who relishes talking about myself preferring to listen to others stories. However for you I will share a little of myself.  I have been a member of St Mary’s for 27 years. I was baptised  an Anglican, although as a young child I remember going to cemetery days to light incense and lay fruit on ancestral worship days which is a Taoist practice because I am part Chinese.

I became a Catholic when I got married – not sure why ‘I guess it can come under the banner of “the silly things you do for love’. Shortly after being married I heard of St Marys from an Anglican friend and  I still remember how horrified the catholic priest was who had reconfirmed me,  when I told him where we were attending.

My three children have been baptised at St Marys to Micah’s words of “act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly”. These simple words contributed to the impasse with the institution but they are the words I would choose again if I had to. They are also the words I try to live my life by, although my long suffering husband would question my capacity to ‘love tenderly’ but that is another story!

This time last year, I was on the cusp of graduating from a degree in Speech and Language pathology from the University of Queensland. I had spent the previous 4 years as not only a mature age student but as a “super –mature  aged”  student,  as a fellow St Marys member kindly reminded me. You know who you a are!

I have spent a lot of time in university gaining other qualifications but my return to this was in part due to a desire to return to something far more meaningful.

I have now been working for a year in the Department of Education as a speech and language pathologist and that is what I will talk to you tonight about.

I am well versed in the difficulties and frustration that accompany families who have a member with communication difficulties because at present I have 3 members in my immediate family with communication difficulties.

I have a sister with severe cerebral palsy meaning that she is not only quadriplegic but has speech which is extremely difficult for anyone to understand. My 88 year old mother has vascular dementia and she increasingly speaks using the exact same words and phrases, making conversation increasingly difficult. My 84 year old father- in- law has advanced Parkinson’s meaning that it is very difficult for him to initiate speech.  I know that many people here will also have family members and friends with communication difficulties because it is very common.

Communication difficulties are often hidden disabilities,  which compounds the sense of isolation that accompanies it . As reflected in the readings- human beings are programmed to be social and connect with others.

I work across 5 schools- 3 primary schools in the Ipswich/ Lowood area and 2 high schools on the Southside of town. Just to clarify when I talk about speech I am talking about the way we say words and when I talk about language this relates to words one uses and the words one understands.

It is my privilege to work in this job particular in these areas because children from lower socioeconomic areas face additional difficulties with speech and language.

Some  facts released by Speech Pathology Australia  in the last month include:

  • Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 children entering school will have speech, language and communication disorder.
  • This reduces, but between 10- 15% of high school students will continue with a communication disorder.
  • 46% of young offenders in juvenile detention have  language impairment
  • Students with communication problems are at greater risk of bullying and report less school enjoyment than peers
  • A lot of evidence to indicate a negative trajectory for young people with increased incidence of disengagement from school, poor educational outcomes, mental health, problematic behaviours and interaction with the juvenile justice system.
  • Children living in  the most socially disadvantaged locations are 4 x as likely to be ‘developmentally at risk’ then those from the least socially disadvantage areas in the language and cognitive skills domain. We also know that children from ATSI and refugee backgrounds are practically vulnerable.

The landmark study in 1995 by Hart and Risley identified both qualitative and quantitative differences in children’s early language experience dependent on their parent’s socio-economic status. AT 3 years of age the number of words children heard in different families was significant. Children from the highest socio-economic group heard on average of 2153 words per hour while children from the lowest socio-economic heard on average of 616 words per hour. It was estimated that by 4 years of age the difference between these groups translated to a 30 million-word advantage to the highest socio-economic group. These children had a significant linguistic and social advantage when entering school at 5 years of age.

On my caseload, I have:

  • Prep students who typically talk in only 3-4 word sentences
  • Prep students who had severe speech difficulties with a sound preference meaning that the initial sound in every word goes to one sound. So they will say “guy gont go” for “I don’t know”
  • I have prep students who have been suspended from school- their behaviour is speaking for them when their language can not
  • I have nonverbal students with Autism Spectrum disorder and refugee students (mainly from Africa) who have been exposed to many languages and trauma in their development as  a result of living in refugee camps. They have a language disorder in both their first language and also in English.
  • I have many students of all ages with differing degrees of language impairment who have difficulty understanding and using language- kids who simply get by flying under the radar by being well behaved and simply copying what the other students do
  • I have students who are bought up by the scruff of their necks with low school attendance, no regulation at home and limited language exposure because no one actually converse to them in a meaningful way
  • I have many families- ’working poor’ -who are loving and trying to support their children to the best of their ability, but they are  restricted by their own low levels of education and literacy
  • I have students in Gd 4 and older who do not know sight words such as ‘put’, ‘with’ and who have great difficulty sounding them out. These students have already taken on the identity that they “are dumb”, when in actual fact nonverbal cognitive assessments show that they are of average intelligence. Their difficulty is with speech sound awareness skills, which are the skills necessary for the segmenting and blending of sounds in words which is the basis of  reading.
  • Today’s Gospel is a reference to Stanovich who in 1986 coined the term the “Matthew Effect” in relation to reading. “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. That is, the children who are reading and  using language well,  have good vocabularies, they will read more and use their language skills more effectively, will learn more word meanings and hence read even better.

Conversely, the children with inadequate vocabularies read slowly and without enjoyment- as a result have slower development of vocabulary knowledge, this further inhabits their growth in their reading ability.

Beginning this week I am transitioning to a position in the Department which will entail me seeing students  who are in juvenile detention

As you have heard some 50% of young offenders are found to be language impaired with many of these impairments undiagnosed. Unsurprisingly many of these people have backgrounds of complex trauma which is known to  impact language development.

These youths are likely to be slower in understanding what is being said to them. They are likely to  have a limited range of words and poor narrative skills making them particularly vulnerable under conditions of stress, such as in a police interview. Under stress they are more likely to produce short, non-specific and poorly detailed spoken responses. 

When poor nonverbal skills such as minimal eye contact and lax body posture, accompany these limited responses, the belief that marginalised youth are rude, disengaged and lacking in motivation is reinforced.

The unfortunate  term “school to prison “ pipeline has been coined to describe to the pathway which some students travel- starting with poor achievement at reading and school, subsequent disengagement from school and learning , followed by problematic  behaviour and acting out and then engagement with the justice system.

For this reason we are starting to hear more about the role of “witness intermediatries” in the justice system and the speech and language profession is engaging a broader view as to what the profession can offer. As you can tell I am both excited and privileged to be a part of it.

  • Kailash Satyarthi Nobel Peace Prize winner –“Education is the key to empowerment and sustainability, Education is a right which is the key to the rest of the rights of life in society. Education is the key to social justice.”
  • I would like to extend this to say that communication is the key to the rest of the rights of life in society and also the key to social justice.”