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Speech is just the start

Male client sat with female speech pathologist at a table covered in letters
Gil Cunningham with NHW Speech Pathologist Sheree Bennett

When we hear the word Speech Pathologist, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s all about words.

But during Speech Pathology Week, we’re being encouraged to think about speech in a different way and think beyond the spoken word to expression, gesture and identity.

NHW Speech Pathologist, Sheree Bennett said Speech Pathology Week presented an opportunity to educate the public that their profession is focused on more than just speech and that their services can help broader communication and swallowing impairments.

“Our work covers the lifespan, from infants and children to the mature aged and into aged care,” said Sheree.

“Communication is more than speaking and the ability to express what you want or need.

“To communicate is how you show your personality, how you establish and maintain relationships with people, and it is very personal to us.

“So when that ability changes – which could be due to a stroke, cancer, progressive neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, Motor Neurone Disease or dementia – it has an enormous impact on the person as a whole.

“As Speech Pathologists, we provide therapy and work closely with people who have communication difficulties and our work covers a range of responses to meet their specific needs.”

Gil Cunningham from Yarrawonga developed aphasia after one of his strokes. Aphasia is a language impairment that involves a breakdown in the ability to find the right words when speaking and writing. It can cause difficulties understanding written language and can lead to the individual writing unrecognizable letters or symbols.

Before his strokes, Gil was an avid golfer and very active in the management of Yarrawonga Golf Club. He has been participating in rehabilitation that includes Speech Pathology over the last twelve months.

“The first thing I found difficult was the feeling of lack of self-control. I felt like a bit of a nuisance and it was difficult to share my frustration,” Gil said.

“It can be a really lonely time so I have relied on the support of this team.”

“I had real difficulty with my speech at the start and that highlighted to me the extra work that all allied health professionals do to help people recover, and the way they cross over and integrate.”

Gil said the bigger art form of the profession was the communication and support he experienced, which helped him feel comfortable and confident in working through rehabilitation.

“Being able to feel comfortable with the team was a big thing and encouraged me to keep doing the work,” Gil said.

“For example, it took until just recently for me to feel comfortable using a tablet to regain some independent functions like checking banking and writing a shopping list.  Getting that confidence back was a big thing and it took a combination of therapies to get me there.”

Sheree said communication impairments could often be improved with consistent, focused rehabilitation.

“For Gil in particular, as a high-functioning person, he experienced some issues early on speaking and writing.

“It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for someone who has been using language and gestures all of their life to have letters on a page not making sense.

“We implemented a range of activities to help build Gil’s capacity and his confidence and he’s made significant improvements over time.”

Sheree said communication training with families and people that are close to the person they are working with was also important, because families often needed support in understanding how to best support the person with a communication impairment.

“It’s not just if we can’t communicate, it’s the bigger impact on a person’s mental health and wellbeing, and the ripple effect for their family and loved ones.” Sheree said.

Speech Pathology Week runs until 26 August. Self-referrals can be made to NHW’s Community Care Intake Advisor by phone (03) 5722 5679 or email