What I’ve Learned Working with Deaf & Hard of Hearing Clients

I was a junior in college with no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I had been studying to become a pharmacist, but deep down I knew that pharmacy wasn’t the path for me. My goal was to finish my undergraduate degree within four years, but at this point in my junior year, that seemed impossible—I would have to start all over again. After several conversations with my mom, I finally went to the career center to figure out what degree would get me out of school the fastest. 

Ultimately, I decided to get my bachelor of science in public health. One of the electives offered was a class called Introduction to Speech Language Pathology and Audiology. I had heard a little bit about speech-language pathology before and knew that they worked with children with reading disorders. What I didn’t know is that one class would change my entire career. 

In that class, I met a professor who studied spoken language and literacy outcomes for children with hearing loss. I volunteered in her research lab my senior year, where I focused on scoring assessment and learning about the language transcription. During that time, I became increasingly interested in learning more about hearing loss. 

Working with Deaf & Hard of Hearing Children and Families 

I learned a great deal about working with Deaf and hard of hearing children and their families through my coursework. The real learning began in my clinical practicums and once I began practicing as a speech-language pathologist. Experiences and listening to families about their lived experiences teach us aspects that a textbook simply can’t. When considering working with Deaf and hard of hearing children, it is important to consider these factors. 

1. Connect families with the Deaf community.
The biggest lesson I learned is the importance of professionals learning from and connecting families with a Deaf mentor. I learned about the hearing mechanism, hearing technology, and strategies to develop spoken language when working with this population. Yet, no professor emphasized the importance of Deaf mentors for families. The lived experience of other Deaf people is an invaluable resource for families. With social media, it’s now easier than ever to meet Deaf adults and connect families with one another. 

2. Learn about all communication modalities. 
Our role as speech-language pathologists is to be informed of all communication modalities and provide families with all the information they need to make informed decisions for their child. It’s easy to develop a bias to one modality over another. However, that takes away the right of the family to choose what would be best for them and their child.

3. Hearing technology is a tool, not a fix.
Assistive hearing technology, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, have made leaps and bounds since they were first invented. Yet, they’re a tool to assist individuals with listening. They don’t fix or restore a child’s hearing—and they’re not meant to. This is important to communicate with families at the beginning of their journey. As professionals, knowing this information helps to inform our care and allow us to make adjustments with language development when challenges arise. 

The Benefit of Specialization Early in Your Career

The research lab I worked in my senior year gave me the opportunity to discover my passion in this work. Assisting with the research, learning from current graduate students, and observing a few clients with hearing loss in the clinic helped to cultivate my desire to learn more. I got accepted to a graduate program that had an auditory verbal therapy (AVT) specialization track, which focuses on listening and spoken language skills for Deaf and hard of hearing children. 

I spent time as a graduate research assistant reading and conducting research focusing on children with hearing loss. The more I learned, the more I realized that this was the area of the field I wanted to focus on. I applied and was accepted onto the AVT track. This track required that I take specialized course work in cochlear implants, auditory verbal therapy, and treat clients with hearing loss. 

During graduate school, many students are focused on learning the basics and getting through their program, but graduate school can also be a time to get a deeper knowledge about specific areas of interest. You don’t have to wait until you have been practicing for years to start specializing. Here are three suggestions for learning about specialty areas while you’re still early in your career.

1. Find a mentor who specializes in that area.
Connecting with someone who specializes in your area of interest is a solid start to learning more. With more professionals on social media, it has made it easier than ever to connect with potential mentors. When searching for a mentor, have an idea about what you would like to get out of the relationship. 

 2. Get hands-on clinical experience. 
Nothing can replace that hands-on experience that you gain working with clients. Depending on the client population, it may take work on your end to find these opportunities. Networking can be very helpful in this situation. Asking other professionals in your area or surrounding areas may lead to opportunities that you didn’t know existed. 

3. Take continuing education courses. 
High quality continuing education courses offer a way to learn more about a desired area in the field. Continuing education courses are available in a variety of ways from podcast to journal clubs. You can choose courses based on your instruction level and learning style preference. 

I was fortunate that I was able to find the specialty area that I’m passionate about earlier in my career as an SLP—but that doesn’t mean it’s the only path to take. As you start working with more clients and gain an understanding of what your passions are, you’ll still be able to find your niche and serve populations that need you most. 

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