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New U of M clinic addresses language barriers in medical settings

By Laura Fenton

Maneuvering in Memphis can be tough enough for non-English speakers, but when children or adults need medical attention, the language barrier is even more challenging.

A new clinic within the University of Memphis’ School of Communication Sciences and Disorders  (formerly School of Audiology and Speech-language Pathology) is addressing that problem. The Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Clinic is working with interpreters and audiology and speech pathology students to diagnose any disorders or language difficulties. 

U of M graduate student Charlie Bird, left, read through the Spanish language test with interpreter Adriana Benavides prior to the bilingual screening at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (formerly School of Audiology and Speech-language Pathology). The two discuss the instruction on how to test a child and coordinate the testing once the child enters the room.

“There are a lot of languages in the world,” said Linda Jarmulowicz, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders. “Since we’re not attracting a lot of bilingual speech-language pathologists to this part of the country, (we decided) to develop a program that will allow us to serve the population of Spanish-speakers in Memphis. At the same time, we are going to train our students how to work with medical interpreters who work with this client base.”

The clinic is a part of a $1,173,419 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. Funds will be used to train students to work with interpreters in diagnostic evaluations, and possibly therapeutic techniques, for persons who speak a language other than English.

“The goal of the grant is to address the need for more culturally and linguistically aware students in the professions of audiology and speech-language pathology,” Jarmulowicz said.

Most students in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders are not fluent in a language other than English, Jarmulowicz said.

The clinic will focus mainly on assisting Spanish-speakers because that is the largest underserved population in the area.

Currently, the American Speech Language and Hearing Association of Memphis has two audiologists who speak Spanish and no language pathologists who speak Spanish in the greater Memphis area.

“We’re coming in contact with more people who aren’t native English-speaking or don’t speak English at all,” Jarmulowicz said. “So there’s been a big push for bilingual speech and language pathologists and audiologists.”

Although the clinic has been open since January, only about eight patients have made appointments for diagnostic evaluations. Prior to the clinic, many people would call for appointments and not mention the language barrier of the tested child or adult until arriving for the evaluation. With such short notice, clinicians and professors were not always able to successfully test the person.

Teresa Wolf, clinical associate professor for the school, said it is extremely frustrating for both parties when there is a language barrier. “We suspect that the reason they didn’t tell us (that they couldn’t speak English) was they were afraid that if they did tell us, we wouldn’t provide services.”

The four-year grant will provide funding for tuition and fees for three students each semester.

Students spend two semesters working with interpreters in the clinic and two semesters in a pediatric or elementary setting. They must also attend seminars once a semester in topics related to the field, complete a research project and create an educational project that is community oriented.

Once the U of M graduate students and interpreters coordinate the testing procedures, the group meets with a program supervisor, such as Teresa Wolf, left, to finalize the process of testing and address any concerns with the bilingual test. Pictured are students Elise Harris, left center; Charlie Bird, right center, and interpreter Adriana Benavides.

For Charlie Bird, a student clinician, the most challenging part of working with interpreters is not speaking Spanish for the interpreter.

“[For me, this program is about] learning to use the interpreter as a resource, not [for] me to flounder and try to come up with some kind of word to explain it.”

Although students may know general means of communication in Spanish, working with interpreters is imperative when it comes to using medical vocabulary.

The other necessary reason to work with interpreters is to pick up on cultural practices, such as not looking a person in the eyes, and decoding if a child is saying actual words.

“It’s been a collaborative process because we have to rely on them for certain information,” said Elise Harris, student clinician. “If a child is sitting there babbling, I might assume he is speaking Spanish, but the interpreter can help clarify that he actually is not saying anything.”

When students complete the program, they will have the tools to effectively train interpreters on how to test a patient in the diagnostic evaluations in any language.

“By the end of this program, I’ll know how to work with interpreters, and also how to train interpreters so I will have someone to help me help the population wherever I move,” Harris said.

In addition to these graduate-level requirements, students participating in the program must spend their first two years of employment working with pediatric cases, allotting at least 51 percent of their caseload to pediatrics.

The clinic is open for a total of 10 hours on Tuesday and Thursday mornings this semester, although hours and days will most likely change each semester.

To schedule an appointment for a diagnostic evaluation, call 678-5800 for more program information. To leave a message in Spanish, call 678-3492 and an interpreter will return the call.

(The U of M’s School of Audiology and Speech-language Pathology changed its name to the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders in late spring.)

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Last Updated: 1/23/12