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Learning by listening

April 6, 2012

As students in the program, we are constantly exposed to learning experiences and guest lecturers that help instill within us the insight, passion, and knowledge that we will need as future clinicians.  Last week we were given the opportunity to listen to an amazing guest speaker named Melissa, who is an SLP herself, and a mother to two children, one of whom was born with Down syndrome.  Melissa recounted to us her early experiences with the health care field, as she navigated the first few years of her son Evan’s life, which was a very stressful time due to the many associated health conditions Evan was born with.

Having had the experience of dealing with many doctors, nurses and specialists has left Melissa full of advice and suggestions about how the system can be improved and how we, as health service providers, can help families deal with whatever has brought them to us.  I was so grateful that she took the time to share her story and her words of wisdom with us that I thought I would pass on her valuable advice.

  1. Know what you know and what you don’t: it is better to be honest and upfront about what you know, rather than lie or say something that you are not sure is true.
  2. Labels are just labels: we need to remember that there is a person behind the labels we use to diagnose, and that the stigma attached to labels such as Down Syndrome or Autism can be difficult to overcome.
  3. Don’t let the file bias your thinking before you have met the client: Reading a file is not the same as meeting a client. Files are not objective and may bias how you interact with the client.
  4. Attitude matters!: One of the most important pieces of advice that Melissa told us was to never go to work with a bad attitude. Rather, go every day prepared to give your best effort.
  5. Judgments go both ways: we need to be aware of what kinds of judgments we are forming about our clients, while at the same time realizing that the people we work with are judging us back. People we may consider to be “difficult patients” are really just individuals with a different perspective. It is not our job to convince them of our opinion, but to find the areas in which our opinions overlap.
  6. Be kind every moment: We are often faced the task of delivering bad news to parents, for example, a diagnosis of a language delay. We do not need to lie or sugar coat, but everything we say to clients should be infused with kindness, and be phrased in a way that doesn’t take away their hope.
  7. Help families figure out what they need: The health system puts enormous pressure on families and clients to know what they need. We need to understand what the family is going through and help parents navigate the sea of available services. Melissa explained that in order to do this we need to have the right amount of time, education, and perseverance to fully advocate for and assist the people we work with.
  8. There is no such thing as disability vs ability: It is often easy to dichotomize people into categorical classes, but we need to keep in mind that everyone is a bit different and falls somewhere along a continuum.

As Melissa wrapped up her talk with a slideshow of pictures showing Evan growing up surrounded by family and friends, she made a very powerful statement that I think all SLPs and health service providers should keep in mind, saying “The birth of any child is an invitation to be a better person.” Additionally, working with any child is an invitation for us to become better clinicians, and to continually develop our professional skills, our compassion, and our relationships with our clients!

–Adele Courchesne

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