By Melodie Veldhuizen
Speech-language therapists are health practitioners who evaluate, diagnose and treat people with a diverse variety of speech and swallowing problems. They work with people of all ages, from premature babies to old people. Speech, language and swallowing problems are usually caused by delayed development or cleft palates (in babies), autism, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, loss of hearing, Parkinson’s disease, or injuries to the mouth or throat, but also include problems such as stuttering. Speech-language therapy therefore covers a wide field and after you have obtained your qualification, there are several professional fields to choose from.
Mianda Venter, a practising therapist, talks about her career.
- What made you decide to choose speech therapy as as a career?
In 2011 my sister and I were part of an outreach programme at the Jean Webber Home in Bloemfontein, which accommodates adults with handicaps. There I saw how helpless and vulnerable people are if they cannot communicate. That is where my passion for speech-language therapy took root.
- What do the studies comprise?
Various universities in South Africa offer speech therapy as a field of study: University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Stellenosch, University of Cape Town, Sefako Makgatho University, University of KwaZuluNatal and the University of Fort Hare.
The undergraduate studies (B, BA, BSc) take four years, after which one can also study for a masters or PhD degree. The prerequisite for and duration of post-graduate studies differ from one university to the next.
Practical training constitutes a big part of this field of study. During their first year students usually do practical observation. In their second year they begin to see clients and patients. The idea is that students should get as much practical exposure as possible after learning the theoretical work. All the students’ practical sessions usually take place under the supervision of a registered therapist.
After completing your undergraduate studies, you must do a community service year. The purpose of this is to give back to the community and gain as much practical experience in order to work without any supervision the next year. Afer that you can register with the HPCSA as a fully qualified speech-language therapist.
- What skills and characteristics should a speech-language therapist have?
The most important characteristics and skills of people who are interested in speech-language therapy are good time management, motivation, patience and unselfishness. You must also be passionate about helping people. Other characteristics are responsibility and dedication.
- What professional choices do speech therapists have?
Speech-language therapy is a wide field and there many careers to choose from. Speech-language therapists work with people of all ages (from premature babies to the aged) who present a variety of pathologies, diseases and diagnoses. Speech-language therapists are found in schools, hospitals, clinics, private practices, universities, old-age homes and in the private and public sectors. There are even speech-language therapists who work for big companies (for instance selling equipment to people with feeding or communication problems). Our profession entails a lot of research and many speech-language therapists do academic work only.
- What does your current work comprise?
I have always been passionate about working in hospitals, and more specifically in intensive-care units for premature babies, and with children and adults. I mostly see patients with swallowing and feeding problems. Patients usually have one out of two therapeutic options. The first is changing the feeding method (by mouth or feeding tube) and/or changing the feeding position and/or changing the feeding utensils and/or changing the consistency and texture of food and fluids. The second is exercises to improve swallowing ability.
I also enjoy working with adults and old people who experience communication problems. I acquired a masters degree in 2018 and it dealt specifically with communication problems experienced by bilingual people after a stroke.
- What challenges are involved in your work?
I would say every speech-language therapist experiences different challenges – it usually depends on your specific working conditions. My biggest challenge is to make sure that I give my patients the right and best possible service. This may sound strange, but every patient is unique, and what works for one person does not always work for another person. This way of thinking is especially important when you work with critical patients because swallowing problems could cause food and/or fluids to get into a patient’s lungs, and this could cause further lunf infections and in extreme cases cause death.
- What is fulfilling about your work?
I am blessed every day with a talent for helping other people. The improvement of clients’ and patients’ swallowing, feeding and communication skills is a big help not only to themselves but also to their families and friends. Patients and clients often say that it feels like getting back their old life and that they can be more self-sufficient and independent.
- What would you say to a prospective student who is weighing the pros and cons of speech therapy as a field of study?
If you are interested in a medically inclined profession and have a passion for helping people, speech-language therapy is a career you could consider. I would also recommend that prospective students have a look at what different therapists’ specialities comprise.
Career Explorer. https://www.careerexplorer.com/degrees/speech-language-pathology-degree/
Career Planet. https://careerplanet.co.za/careers-listing/speech-therapist/
Mianda Venter. Spraak-taalterapeut. email@example.com. 076 145 1870