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Demand for speech pathologists gives graduate program 98% job placement rate

Communication Science & Disorders Dept. offers only speech pathology master’s degree program in Houston

Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford struggles every day to sound like her old self again.

She works with a speech therapist to relearn how to speak after surviving being shot in the head by a gunman during a January 2011 community event in Tucson, Ariz.

She pushes daily to reclaim the oratory skills that helped her win election to the U.S. Congress even though she stepped down from her seat in 2012 to focus on her recovery.

The month after Giffords was attacked, Colin Firth won the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of England’s King George VI and the monarch’s work with a speech therapist to overcome a debilitating speech impediment – stuttering.

“Although both of these events occurred after I applied to the graduate school, the Gabby Giffords tragedy and The King’s Speech both created awareness for my field,” said Kristen Latta, who will receive her master’s degree in Communication Science and Disorders on May 10.

“Rep. Giffords made the public much more aware of aphasia, an acquired language disorder, as a diagnosis, and the importance of treatment for it,” she said. “And The King's Speech, even for me, raised awareness of just how debilitating a fluency disorder (stuttering) can be.”

Ms. Latta is one of several May graduates who have earned master degrees in Communication Science and Disorders and are entering the job market as speech-language pathologists at a time when demand for their skills is increasing as understanding of their field grows.

Speech-language pathologists evaluate and diagnose speech, language, cognitive-communication, and swallowing disorders and treat such disorders in individuals of all ages, from infants to the elderly, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA.)

“UH offers the only Master’s program in Speech Pathology in the city of Houston,” said Dr. Margaret Lehman Blake, associate professor and graduate coordinator for the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“For the past three years, students who graduate from our Master’s program have averaged a 98 percent job placement rate,” Dr. Blake said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for speech-language pathologists is expected to grow by 23% from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations.

The need for more speech pathologists is partly tied to the aging of the Baby-boom generation. As the Baby Boomers grow older, many will develop health conditions that cause speech or language impairments, such as strokes, brain injuries, and hearing loss.

Another factor is the rising number of autism diagnosis for children, which also creates a demand for speech pathologists to work with autistic children.

“In our program, students begin working with clients in the clinic within the first two weeks of the semester,” Dr. Blake said. “We also offer students the ability to spend equal time working with children and adults, giving them valuable experience with each of these types of clients.”

Following graduation, students are required to participate in a nine-month fellowship which offers them paid, supervised employment as they transition into their professional careers. The fellowship usually rolls into a full-time position.

Ms. Latta’s post-graduation career plan is to work for the Speech and Language Connection clinic. She will work with children in the practice’s two, Houston-area locations.

“I began the Master’s program thinking I would like to work with adults,” she said. “But I really enjoy working with kids. It’s a different feel because you work in short, 25 minute intervals to keep their attention. You have to be creative and make the experience fun.”

She plans to use her life experiences and education to help her connect with the children. She earned her undergraduate degree in Drama and Theater from New York University. She spent several years auditioning and pursing an acting career in New York City while also working in the publishing industry.

Ms. Latta’s background in oral and written communication sparked her interest in helping others struggling to express themselves. Plus, the job security in speech pathology was more attractive than the financial struggles in acting.

 “I had a minor in psychology from NYU,” said Latta. “After living in New York, I wanted to be closer to my family in Houston, so I moved and began researching careers in speech pathology. Psychology and Speech Pathology intersect more than I realized they would. I believe that a career in speech pathology will allow me to make a positive change in the lives of the individuals I work with.”

She won admission to the Communications Science and Disorders master’s program, which limits enrollment to no more than 40 new students each fall. Last year, 315 individuals applied for the 40 available spaces. All of her classmates were women. Only 4 percent of all speech-language pathologists are men, according to ASHA.

“Many women go into speech pathology because it is a low-stress career that often offers a flexible schedule,” said Dr. Blake. “There is a wide range of what we do… you can work for a school district, in a hospital setting, or in a private practice. It’s a good work environment with good salary potential.”

- By Monica Byars