USAO Speech-Language Pathologists Set to Serve Soaring Need

USAO's John A. Morris Speech and Language Clinic is located in Gary Hall
USAO's John A. Morris Speech and Language Clinic is located in Gary Hall

Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the rate of job growth in the speech-language pathology field will near 30 percent over the next decade, many people are not even aware of what the job entails or that the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma is one of the premier institutions where students can earn a bachelor’s degree in the discipline. According to Dr. Karen Karner, director of the John A. Morris Speech and Language Clinic and assistant professor of speech-language pathology, the techniques used in the field can be applied to help a very wide range of language-related problems.

“Remember when you were in grade school and maybe you or one of your friends couldn’t say some sounds right. Or maybe your friend had trouble getting the words to flow effortlessly when talking. Or maybe you have relatives that have had strokes or traumatic brain injuries that keep them from talking, eating or comprehending like they did before their injuries,” she said. “Helping you, your friends or your relatives comprehend and communicate more typically is the goal of the speech-language pathologist. We work with everyone from infants to the elderly to empower them to speak, or communicate in other ways, to their full potential.”

Karner notes that speech-language pathologists must be especially receptive to the individuals they work with, because everyone responds in their own unique way. While different people require differing levels of therapy, the overarching goal is to develop a way for them to effectively communicate their needs and desires to others and interact independently with the wider world, despite whatever disabilities with which they might be struggling.

“Dismissal from therapy is a satisfying day. I like to think that my job as a speech-language pathologist is to work myself out of a job,” said Karner.

Speech-language pathologists can find work in hospitals, independent clinics, public and private schools, and federal, state and municipal agencies, and many SLPs also run private practices where they can specialize in a chosen area of communication. Some may sit side-by-side with medical practitioners, administering swallowing studies or visualizing the physical state of a person’s vocal folds, while others may help teachers in the classroom or in the private homes, teaching the parents of young children techniques to encourage their communication development.

“We may be found working with infants born with cleft palate, with elderly residents in nursing homes diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, or any other age in between in any type of situation that effects the ability to communicate,” said Karner.

Karner sees a number of contributing factors to the rapid growth in national demand for speech-language pathologists. First is the federal government’s mandating of birth to five-year programming in 1986, which was intended to deliver services to young people with developmental delays that put them at risk of failure in school. In response, Oklahoma created the Sooner Start program, which serves children from birth to three years, at which time they can enter special preschool programs through their local public school district. This mandate not only opened the doors for families to receive much needed therapies, it stimulated a tremendous need for certified speech-language pathologists across the nation. In addition, the rapid advancement in medical technology over the past few decades has also spurred demand in the field, as previously fatal or irreversible conditions have become treatable.

“Premature infants who would have died shortly after birth are now surviving, but not without risk for developmental delays. Senior citizens who have suffered brain injuries or degenerative illnesses are surviving longer, and they, too, are in need of instruction in how to think and how to talk again,” said Karner. “Finally, while research on the effects of COVID-19 are just beginning to be published, many patients claim ‘brain fog’ occurring for months afterwards. Working with memory issues is the job of the speech-language pathologist, and we are just beginning to understand the possible roles our specialized skills can play in our nation’s recovery.”

A member of the USAO faculty since 2013, Karner first became aware of the institution when her daughter attended a week-long Youth Leadership Forum on campus sponsored by the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council. Then a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, an instructor emailed her about an open position at USAO, and she jumped at the opportunity.

“What drew me specifically was the John A. Morris Speech and Language Clinic,” said Karner. “I believe that undergraduates need the clinical practicum experience if they are to decide on graduate studies in this field, because at that level it’s too late to realize that you are not cut out for this work. USAO students can put what they learn in their courses into action. Often students will tell me, ‘I didn’t get that when we talked about it in class, but now I see what you meant.’ Plus, and this is a big plus, the clinic serves the children of Chickasha and surrounding communities.”

Established in 1972, the Morris Clinic focuses on pediatric disorders but also serves adults depending on their disorder, including several in the last year. It is available to USAO students who may have had speech therapy in elementary school but now have slipped back into problematic patterns of producing speech sounds or otherwise communicating effectively. It is a vital component of the Neill-Wint Center for Neurodiversity, the university’s support program for students with autism spectrum disorder, helping these students develop the functional communication skills needed for success in university now and in competitive employment after graduation. The clinic also provides services to children with complicated disorders whose parents desire additional help outside of their school district, and families who do not qualify for Sooner Start but still want extra guidance. Though the pandemic forced the clinic to drastically shift its operations, t technology provided some clear benefits, allowing the clinic to serve clients across the state through telehealth, instead of just in the Chickasha area.

And unlike many undergraduate speech-language pathology programs, where high-performing seniors may be assigned a single client, USAO requires seniors in the program to complete a clinical practicum for two terms and manage at least three clients each term.

“Students learn fast how to juggle planning, procedures and paperwork. They learn that clients do not react the way they do in textbooks. It can be stressful, but it’s a requirement that students gladly complete. I have been told by graduate schools that our students are well prepared for the rigor of their programs and the clinical experiences,” said Karner.

Beyond the real-world experience the USAO students receive in the Morris Clinic, the program’s size and its faculty’s experience enable close working relationships between students, professors and clients. Students from different classes collaborate closely and develop a sense of camaraderie. Karner also notes that the department’s faculty are clinicians first and academics second, and that makes a distinct difference in the way they can show students how to apply theoretical techniques in real-life situations.

The field of speech-language pathology itself clearly links the interdisciplinary ideas bound up in the USAO name, requiring practitioners to at once be rigorous scientists (to conduct research, evaluate results and understand the best therapeutic approach), compassionate humanists (to effectively improve the welfare of their clients), and artists (because every person is unique).

“No two clients will ever respond to the same treatment the same way,” said Karner. “So we must be creative in our approach to therapy, considering the life, ability and communication desires of our client. We find creative ways to fit the individual. Speech-language pathology is an interdisciplinary field in which we find ourselves on diverse teams quite often. USAO’ interdisciplinary studies curriculum encourages the level of thinking needed to be successful as part of such teams, and speech-language pathology provides the experience to put that level of thinking into action.”

As a mark of the success of this method of teaching, every speech-language pathology major at USAO who has applied in the last five years has been accepted into a graduate program. Students leave here able to discuss both the theory and practice of their discipline in a comprehensive way, they have already undertaken the tremendous responsibility of juggling their studies and clients, so many graduate schools see them as well-prepared for the pressure they will face pursuing an advanced degree. New recording technologies have also allowed students to self-evaluate their clinical skills, and advanced software assists with the quantitative analysis of treatment results and language sampling, further solidifying skills that few undergraduates have the chance to develop.

Keeping up with rapidly changing technology is one of the program’s major challenges, and, beyond the cost, implementing new technologies takes the wisdom to consider how to best meet the needs of students, clients and the program’s long-term goals. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a crash course in adapting to radical technological changes, and USAO’ speech-language pathology program has been at the forefront of meeting these challenges head-on, both through the use of telehealth and through the creation of hybrid programming that can allow people who already have a bachelor’s degree to complete the coursework required for graduate study in speech-language pathology.

“I often get phone calls from teachers who have seen what speech-language pathologists do and now want to return to school and study the field,” said Karner. “Giving up a full year’s salary just prior to entering graduate school is difficult though. Hybrid programming would allow students to maintain their jobs while completing the necessary coursework, and the technology we have due to COVID-19 allows us to consider it.”  

Though Karner has enjoyed watching all of her students get through graduate school and start their careers throughout her time at USAO, she is especially proud of last year’s graduates for the courage they showed in a deeply uncertain time.

“We had a total of 9 graduates and every one of them was accepted into a graduate school program,” she said. “This group was unique. Several of them were athletes, and I believe the training they received through their years in their sport uniquely prepared them for the teamwork they would be forced into when COVID-19 hit. They pulled together more than any group I’d seen in the clinic. They knew each other’s clients, their work, and they willingly answered the call each time I said, ‘We need your help!’ No one complained. They had a job to do. They adapted. They did it. All the time, they supported their clients and each other with servant hearts. When they graduated in spring, I cried. It was the first time that commencement made me cry.”

Moving forward, USAO’ speech-language pathology department is eager to welcome both students and clients back to in-person sessions, while continuing to provide effective telehealth solutions as well, in order to serve the broadest number of people possible. Students interested in the field should realize that, thanks to USAO’ trimester system, they can earn their bachelor’s degree in three years and enter the professional world sooner. Combined with the university’s interdisciplinary core curriculum and the program’s clinical practicum, students leave campus with a finely-honed skillset that can be adapted to many different markets. And the field’s innately interdisciplinary approach can appeal to students who both enjoy the scientific method but care deeply about people, who know they want to raise people’s quality of life but might not know how to do that yet. Karner encourages any such students to reach out to her for further discussion, and, above all, thanks the public for their long-standing support of the work that USAO’ speech-language pathologists do every day.

“We at the clinic appreciate how much you have entrusted your family members to our services,” she said. “We do all we can to prepare them in knowledge and skill to assist your loved ones. Our students have learned as your children have learned, and we look forward to continuing to serve the Chickasha and the surrounding area in the years to come.”

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