Students with Speech Impairments

You may work with some students who appear shy and withdrawn when you call on them in class or attempt to engage them in conversation outside of the classroom. They may use single words or short phrases when communicating verbally or delay in responding, as they seem to struggle in finding the correct words. Some students have difficulty coming to the point or staying on the topic in their oral communication, even though they appear to understand the information being discussed or communicate effectively in writing.

These observable traits may be signs that the student has a speech impairment that he or she was born with or that has resulted from illness or injury. The condition may also be part of another disability. In any case, the college student with a speech impairment may be reluctant to talk with you about such difficulties because he or she feels frustrated expressing thoughts orally. Unless it has been recently acquired, the student will may have received some speech therapy.

Types of Speech Conditions

Impairments include: problems with the way words are pronounced (omitting, distorting or substituting sounds in the words spoken); voice quality (volume, pitch, tonal quality, or chronic hoarseness); rate of speech (long pauses while searching for the right word, stuttering, speaking too quickly or too slowly, or stopping and starting of speech with the use of filler words, i.e., um, er, uh); esophageal speech (resulting from a laryngectomy). Occasionally distorted movements and facial expressions may accompany these conditions.

Academic Considerations

Self-Consciousness

Many students with speech impairments will be hesitant about participating in activities that require speaking. Even if the student has adjusted well to a speech impairment, new situations may aggravate old anxieties. Therefore, if making oral reports, reading aloud in class, or responding to tests orally is a part of, but not an essential component of your course, you may wish to discuss alternatives with the student. Please keep in mind that speaking in front of a group can be an agonizing experience for any student, whether or not they have a speech impairment.

Interacting with the Student

It is important to encourage the student with a speech impairment to express him or herself and to allow time for the student to organize thoughts and formulate responses before speaking.

Make a point of concentrating on the content of what the student says rather than on the format, and keep in mind that regardless of the type of communication the student is always an equal intellectual participant in the class. It is also beneficial to resist the temptation to complete words and phrases for the speech-impaired student. By patiently accepting and responding to all attempts at communication, the professor can set the mood that aids a student’s effective self expression in class and encourages appropriate reactions from other students.

Speaking Aids

Persons, who cannot speak and who are otherwise physically disabled so that they cannot sign, write, or type, may use a variety of communication aids. Some individuals may use sophisticated electronic "speaking" machines, activated by punching a keyboard with a head pointer or mouth wand (both assistive devices that allow individuals to perform tasks that would ordinarily be performed by hand or finger movement). Others may rely on a spelling board that consists of a layout of the alphabet and a few common words and phrases ("yes" or "no") to which a speech impaired person points and an assistant may speak out loud. Individuals with speech impairments may use devices that provide a "ticker tape" printout or display the message on a calculator-like screen across which the characters move. With less portable devices, the message may be displayed on a TV screen. Most frequently, these students need respect, patience, quiet encouragement, and an opportunity to develop self-confidence in an unfamiliar group.

Accommodations May Include

Oral presentations may be a concern for students with speech impairments and their instructors. It is recommended that instructors openly discuss these concerns with the student and come up with adjustments to oral assignments, if needed. Listed below are several possibilities for alterations.

  • Modifications of oral assignments by allowing one-to-one presentations (between you and the student) or the use of a computer with a voice synthesizer.
  • Allowing substitutions for oral class reports, where the oral report is not fundamental to the class.