How to Not to Be a “Karen” SLP – Part 1

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“Because no one likes a Karen.”

I recently saw a post on Instagram that said speech-language pathology is the 4th whitest profession in the United States. It was an IG post, so I don’t have a citation for it. But, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has done the demographic research for us. We’re almost a completely female dominated field (95%) and almost exclusively white (92%). You can access those 2019 statistics by clicking the link.

As I’ve written before (click here and here), we have a Karen problem in speech-language pathology. The first step in solving a problem is admitting there is one. I freely admit we definitely have a white privilege problem in the field.

So, how do you know if or when you’re taking on Karen-like tendencies? What can you do differently to be more culturally responsive?

Let’s get one very important thing out of the way. Everyone and I mean everyone speaks with an accent. Everyone speaks a dialect. Yes, even you. There are an estimated 24-30 American dialects of English. There is one dialect called Mainstream American English (MAE) and it is the dialect you hear most often by talking heads on TV. That doesn’t make MAE “proper English”, however. Yes, people in California have an accent and a dialect. Yes, people in New England speak with an accent and a dialect. Yes, it’s very possible to speak more than one dialect. I speak at least 3 dialects myself – a product of my family’s background and moving at least every 4 years as a child. When you speak more than one dialect and can switch between them, it’s called code switching. (For the record, when you switch between formality registers – say talking with someone you’ve just met and then your best friend – that’s called register switching.)

So…to recap – there is no such thing as proper American English. Everyone has an accent and speaks at least one dialect of American English. It is possible to code and register switch, but not everyone can or does. Another way to think about this is, if you’re reading this, statistically you’re a white, female, middle-class SLP. When was the last time you brushed up on your AAE? How well could you functionally communicate in an environment where you were the one who “talked funny?” How would you want your communication skills to be judged?

The very first way you can not be a Karen is to absolve yourself of the notion that there is only one “proper” English. The point of evaluations should not be to determine whether the person in front of you demonstrates “only” a communication difference or whether they have a communication disorder.

Wait, what? How am I supposed to decide if people who speak differently from me are different or disordered? Well, first, let’s get rid of these arbitrary categories – “different” and “disordered.” Telling someone they speak “differently” is othering. Telling someone they are “articulate” or they “speak really well” is a microaggression. This supposed compliment really means that the speaker is able to use MAE well. Gee, thanks.

Over the years, I’ve come to see normed, standardized testing as pointless outside of a research context, especially for speakers of non-MAE dialects. All we’re really doing is testing the person’s ability to use MAE. Rather than trying to decide if the way a person speaks is the the result of a difference or disorder on the basis of tools that were not designed for that purpose, reframe your questions. Start by asking how functionally is the person able to communicate what they want to communicate in their environment? Can they fully participate as a member of the community with their current communication skills? What concerns does the individual have about their ability to communicate? What concerns do the people who love and support the individual have? Those are very different questions than “Can the child produce regular third person bound grammatical morphemes in a dialect they don’t speak?” Put another way, don’t just blindly administer the CELF-5 and PPVT-5. Make use of the scoring accommodations in the examiner’s manuals. Then, administer the FCP-R. How effectively does the person communicate in their environment? Isn’t this how you’d want your communication skills to be judged?

Reframing questions like this leads to reframing how goals are conceptualized and I’ll get into that in the next few posts.

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