What Does it Mean to Study Communication Disorders?
Communication disorder degree programs focus on the basics of understanding speech, language, and hearing processes, as well as how to diagnose specific communication disorders in children, the elderly, or patients who have suffered speech or hearing trauma. Graduates of these programs can move on to a graduate program in speech pathology or audiology, or they can pursue positions such as:
- Special education teachers
- Private school administrators
- Speech and hearing therapists
Communication disorders come in all forms and affect all age groups. With nearly 10 percent of the world's population showing signs of communication disorders as of 2008, many people who decide to study communication disorders have either been affected by a disorder themselves, or have witnessed the effects of a communication disorder on a loved one. Different types of communication disorders include:
- Articulation disorders
- Phonological disorders
- Language disorders
- Vocal disorders
- Delayed language
- Autism-related disorders
- Acquired deafness
Some infants are born with these conditions, while others are not evident until the child is a toddler. These disorders can stem from physical or psychological trauma, birth defects, or chemical imbalances in the brain.
The elderly can also be severely affected by communication disorders. Many patients recovering from strokes lose the abilities to understand language or to communicate verbally. These impairments can be purely physical, but many stem from brain damage caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. Many Alzheimer's patients also experience communication disorders.
Accident victims are commonly affected by communication disorders as well. Hearing loss is often evident in workers who are in close proximity to explosions or loud machinery. Trauma can also cause psychological damage that paralyzes one's ability to communicate effectively.
Is a Degree in Communication Disorders Right for You?
It takes a special kind of person to work with patients who suffer from communication disorders. The work often demands skills such as:
- Extreme patience
- Sensitivity to the patient's condition
- Acceptance of all types of people
- Motivational skills
- Quick response time
- Excellent listening skills
- Ability to cooperate
- Interpretation ability
- Seeing to the patient's families needs
- The ability to sensitively talk about the patient
- Excellent vocal and language skills
- Research abilities
- Attention to detail
With the increasing availability of online degree programs in communication disorders, the field is now open to a much wider segment of the population. These online degree programs and e-learning workshops make it possible to earn a college education from the comfort of one's own home, without having to sacrifice family or career. These online programs should be a serious consideration for students who wish to further their education, but simply do not have the time for a traditional on-campus college education.
Preparing to Enter a Communication Disorders College Degree Program
Students who are planning to enter a specialized field such as communication disorders often wonder exactly what they should do to prepare for their undergraduate education. Having some basic skills before you begin your studies can make the application process, as well as the educational process, easier.
Many organizations that work with people affected by communication disorders are happy to accept compassionate volunteers who can aid them in their work. Volunteering can open a student's eyes to the realities of working with communication disorders, while also enhancing a resume or college application.
Experience with alternative forms of communication, such as American Sign Language (ASL), can also help a student gain perspective on how to help patients with communication disorders. Even learning a new verbal language such as French, German or Italian can reacquaint a student with the difficulties of learning how to speak.
Some college admissions officers recommend that incoming students focus their high school studies on anatomy, biology and psychology. Students may also wish to take advantage of any preliminary certificate courses in communications disorders that may be available to them.
Types of Communication Disorders Degrees
The study of communication disorders can be an entryway into a career as a speech pathologist or audiologist, or it can simply supplement a related course of study. Many colleges, including accredited online universities, offer communication science and disorders as a major and a minor, with degrees ranging from supplemental certificate programs to the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.
Choosing a degree program depends entirely on your level of interest in the profession. If you are just thinking about switching careers, a certificate program could test your aptitude. If you are sure you want to work within the field, but are unsure of your future specialty, a Bachelor of Science might be the right choice. If you are sure of your path, you may choose to go straight from college into a master's and possibly a doctorate program. Because audiologists and speech pathologists must have a master's degree to earn certification, the competition for acceptance to graduate programs is very intense.
If you haven't decided to commit completely to audiology or speech pathology, you might want to consider enrolling in a part-time certificate course or simply taking a few introductory classes through an online college or university. Typical courses include:
- Introduction to Audiology
- Introduction to Speech and Language Disorders
- Introduction to Speech Science
- Anatomy and Physiology of the Ear
These kinds of classes can help you decide if a career in speech pathology or audiology is the correct choice for you.
Bachelor of Science Education Degrees
As the entry-level degree for students wishing to pursue a career in speech pathology, audiology, or communication science, applicants usually face an initial interview and screening to test their ability to hear, speak, and otherwise communicate effectively. Note that having a hearing or speech impairment or similar communication disorder does NOT bar individuals from study in the profession; however, the review committee may require the applicant to adhere to specific recommendations regarding the disorder.
A typical curriculum for this program usually covers the diagnosis, symptoms, treatment and prevention of communication disorders that affect hearing, speech and language. There are also usually a number of general education requirements, such as humanities, math, and social sciences. Some undergraduate programs do not allow students to apply for the major until their junior year, after they have completed all the necessary general education requirements and maintained an acceptable grade point average.
Students who intend to pursue graduate study in any field related to communication disorders should plan on maintaining a grade point average of at least 3.2 to have a decent chance of being accepted into a graduate program. Additionally, students should take the GREs early on, so they can retake the test if their initial scores come back too low.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Communication Disorders?
Communication disorders professionals may find themselves working in research labs, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, nursing homes or private practices.
The career outlook for this occupation is steadily improving as the U.S. population continues to grow and to live longer. In addition, parents and teachers are beginning to recognize that many more of their students than previously thought are affected by communication disorders.
Here are some common career choices in the field of communication disorders:
These professionals do everything from diagnosing communication disorders to creating effective treatment plans. They also act as advisors for the teachers and families of the patients, to help them adjust to the presence of the communication disorder. These pathologists also engage in research projects to develop new ways of recognizing or treating disorders.
An audiologist works with people who have hearing difficulties, often selecting and fitting them with hearing aids. They also search for ways to help rehabilitate those with hearing impairments, as well as recommending ways to prevent further hearing loss.
Working as teachers at all levels, speech-language educators seek to promote understanding about communication disorders. They teach how to recognize, diagnose, and treat specific disorders, as well as rehabilitation and research techniques.
These professionals act as the organizers and managers of various types of clinics to keep them running effectively. They are in charge of hiring competent pathologists, as well as making sure each patient is getting the attention she needs.
Special Education Instructor
Working at a public or private school, these educators see to the needs of those with communications disorders, helping them learn how to communicate to their other teachers and peers. These instructors are often the only way students with communication disorders can communicate or learn in a traditional school environment.
Working out of their own offices or homes, these professionals act as therapists, consultants, or clinicians to a small community of individuals. These practitioners often treat the members of their communities throughout their entire lives, from birth until adulthood.
These therapists aid those with speech disorders in gaining the coordination or strengthening the muscles needed to properly pronounce sounds and words. Speech therapists may use speech exercises to help correct a stutter or a lisp, for example.
Children's Hearing Specialist
The communication disorder equivalent of a pediatrician, these specialists focus on the disorders most commonly found in children. They also advise clients and their families on the prevention of communication disorders.
Communication Disorders Certification and Licensure
To be certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), applicants must pass a national exam after completing the criteria for their graduate degree. Moreover, they must have completed at least 350 hours of supervised clinical experience. The ASHA certification exam consists of oral and written sections that cover the principles of research, ethical standards, and current regulations governing the field of audiology. Students must also successfully complete a clinical fellowship under a certified mentor.
Most employers do not hire speech pathologists or audiologists who are not certified. This is why most graduate-level programs in the field include certification with the degree. Certification also decreases liability and accountability risks, which makes obtaining state licensure much easier.