There are approximately 120,000 speech-language pathologists working in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate that over the next decade the profession will grow 19%, which is well above the average rate of growth for all jobs.
Most speech-language pathology jobs require a master’s degree. While most states have regulations, the requirements vary from state to state. The primary accreditation body for postsecondary programs is the Council on Academic Accreditation, which is under the auspices of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Graduation from a professionally accredited school is required for professional credentialing given by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. There are about 240 accredited schools offering master’s or doctoral programs. Among the subjects students will study are courses in biology, anatomy, communication, linguistics, acoustics, and the psychology of communication.
Speech-language pathologists, or speech therapists, evaluate, diagnose, and treat speech, voice, language, swallowing, cognitive-communication, and fluency disorders. For a variety of reasons, their clients are unable to produce speech sounds with clarity. Some have difficulty with the rhythms of speech; an example of this is stuttering. Others have a voice disorder in which sound that is produced is difficult to listen to. The speech issue can be difficulty with producing or processing language. Often speech therapists work with clients who have cognitive disorders that prevent them from recalling information, organizing a message, or attending to the meanings of the words singly or in syntactical combination. Clients may have problems with swallowing that impact speech, as well. Any of these issues can be developmental, the result of an accident, or of physical distress such as brain injury or stroke, learning disabilities, physical impairments such as cleft palate, cerebral palsy, hearing loss due to age or illness, or retardation. Evaluations must be made to determine the nature and scope of the disability; these can be both formal and informal. Speech pathologists rely upon a combination of standardized testing, observation, interviews, and previous documentation to determine the best course of action. Each client’s special needs must be individually planned. For some, sign language or assistive devices are required. Others may need to be taught to create certain sounds or voice textures, to develop muscles used in the manufacture of speech, or to learn strategies to compensate for swallowing issues.
It’s important that speech-language pathologists document all interaction with a client from initial meeting through discharge. In addition to helping pinpoint sources of problems and tracking progress, these records might be required for clients with insurance.
Some of the work speech-language pathologists do is psycho-social. Clients may be frustrated, angry, or ashamed following an accident or medical emergency that has left them without the communicative capacity they had previously. Pathologists must help them learn the necessary skills to re-integrate socially, to return to work, and to return to a satisfying life. Pathologists also work with members of the client’s family to help them understand the reasons behind behavioral changes and to teach them alternate methods of communicating.
Many speech-language pathologists work in medical facilities as part of a team that includes doctors, psychologists, social workers, and other appropriate individuals. Others are employed by school systems where they team with special education and general classroom teachers, interpreters, counselors, and other school personnel, as well as with parents to create an IEP (individualized educational plan) to support the student. Some speech-language pathologists work with communication theory and research. Others work on practical applications such as the development of assistive devices, diagnostic or treatment techniques.
In most cases, speech-language pathologists work in clean, well organized surroundings. Many work from an office, others in a hospital in patients’ rooms, and still others in schools where they visit classrooms to pull out individual children to work independently. It is not unusual for a speech-language pathologist to visit the home of a client and work there.
To be good at their jobs, speech-language pathologists must be both creative and detail-oriented. Because every speech problem is unique, each solution must be, as well. To diagnose, the pathologist must attend carefully to a number of areas at once to determine what the primary and secondary sources of the problem may be. The pathologist must also have considerable patience and considerable empathy, as clients and their families may experience intense emotion at times.
While around 20% work at this occupation part-time, for most the work is a standard 40-hour week. Some make visits in the evening or on weekends to accommodate client needs.
With time, continuing education and experience, a speech-language pathologist might develop particular proficiency with certain disorders, ages, or other specialties. Becoming board recognized in child language development, fluency, or swallowing can lead to more advanced positions. Administrative, managerial, and mentoring positions are other ways in which speech-language pathologists can advance.
The median annual income for speech-language pathologists is about $63,000. Those in the middle earn between $51,000 and $80,000. Those in the bottom 10% are paid less than $42,000, and those in the top 10% earn around $100,000. Approximately 40% of all speech-language pathologists belong to a union.