A head injury victim who has regained his voice and a young woman with cerebral palsy’s crusade to speak te reo are two examples of Kiwis being supported by speech-language therapists to break down communication barriers.

Giving Voice Aotearoa is the ongoing campaign by New Zealand Speech Language Therapists Association (NZSTA) to  support and raise awareness of the about 400,000 Kiwis with some form of communication disability that may include an inability to speak or be easily heard as well as issues with processing spoken and written language. The communication challenges can start at birth or result from an accident or an illness like a stroke.

Annette Rotherham, the newly appointed President of NZSTA said the right to communicate is taken for granted but for many people it is a struggle in a culture where being able to communicate well is increasingly important.

She said the campaign by the  Association, which has about 800 speech-language therapist members, aims to create better communication environments that allow people to be able to thrive and communicate successfully despite their communication disability.

“Unlike a physical disability, if someone has an issue with communication it often goes unnoticed, or it’s hidden, and becomes a silent disability – those affected can become isolated and disempowered,” she says.

“It often results in child behavioural challenges, it impacts learning, getting a job, building relationships, and is more likely to lead to living in poverty.” Research also suggests that as many as 60 per cent of young people in youth justice settings experience significant speech, language and communication difficulties and last year NZSTA recognised the work of two Corrections’ Youth Units for their work in helping train staff to identify and create strategies to support youth with communication difficulties.

To speak with a Kiwi accent

One of NZSTA’s Giving Voice Aotearoa ambassadors is Geneva Hakaraia-Tino, a recent Bachelor of Communication Studies graduate who was born with athetoid cerebral palsy and speaks using a computerised ‘alternative communication’ device.

Geneva, a mentor at youth camps for other young people finding their voice through communication devices, is campaigning for herself and others to have the option of speaking with a Kiwi accent and for the text-to-speech system to correctly recognise and pronounce te reo Māori.

Rotherham says currently there are a limited range of voices available to people using communication devices and the closest accent available is Australian.

A punch in the head during a roadside confrontation in 2016 left young Rangitikei man Aidan Terpstra with severe brain injuries and question marks over whether he would talk again.

But after months in a coma and a long rehabilitation the keen mountain biker can now talk and is beginning to get back to the things he loves, including working on his firewood business.

Judge Andrew Becroft, the Children’s  Commissioner and patron of the NZSTA, says Geneva and Aidan are two of the many examples of people who have been supported by speech language therapists so they can achieve and succeed.

He said many of New Zealand’s children struggle with communication difficulties and neuro-disabilities, including communication disorders, are one of the focal points of the Commissioner’s office.

Becroft himself began stuttering at the age of two-and-a-half and says it has been a lifelong issue but was thankfully now under control due to the fantastic help provided by a three week residential course with a speech language therapist when he was in his 20s.

“My heart goes out to those children in particular who struggle to communicate,” he adds.

“My plea is that we provide real help and assistance; especially speech and language therapy for all children and young people who are struggling with what can be a debilitating disorder that blights young people’s well-being.”

Giving Voice: Healthcare

  • Communication disabilities span a very large group of people who live with conditions including: tourettes, shyness, stuttering, Parkinson’s, dementia, Alzheimer’s, mutism, to name a few
  • 16,000 people in New Zealand have aphasia, the inability (or impaired ability) to understand or produce speech, as a result of brain damage or stroke

10 top tips for improving your patient’s experience in healthcare by following these 10 top tips for communication:

1) Introduce​ yourself ­– Show your name on your name badge.
2) Speak  to the patient ​directly​, not always to their support person.
3) Speak a little​ slower.
4) Allow them ​more time ​to get their message across.
5) Give ​one piece of information ​at a time.
6) Write down ​key information.
7) Utilise ​pictures and communication aids ​a person may have with them.

8) Ask questions that can be answered with a ​yes or no​.
9) Draw​ a diagram.
10) Clarify​ you have understood their message.

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