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What is the Difference Between a Speech Therapist and a Speech Pathologist?

Donald Fuller Speech-Language Pathologist

April 17, 2006

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Question

What is the difference between a speech therapist and a speech pathologist?

Answer

In a word: none. The terms "speech therapist" and "speech pathologist" have been used for years as titles for persons who work with persons having communication impairments. In the past, the term "speech pathologist" was used by professionals to describe themselves, but the term most commonly used today is "speech-language pathologist" or "SLP." Lay people have more often referred to us as "speech therapists," "speech correctionists," or even "speech teachers."

These are all terms that describe the same profession, but "speech-language pathologist" is the preferred term because it captures the essence of our work (speech and language) and also signifies that we are qualified by our training and clinical experience to identify, assess, and provide remediation for pathological conditions of communication. The term "speech" is used to denote the components of vocal activity such as phonation (the production of a vocal tone via the larynx or "voice box"), articulation (the movement of the structures in the mouth to create speech sounds to produce words), resonance (the overall quality of the voice as well as the process that transforms the vocal tone into what we recognize as a person's "voice") and fluency (the timing and synchronization of these components of the complex speech act). "Language" refers to the comprehension and production of language, including the mode in which it is comprehended or produced (oral, gesturing, writing, or reading).

Even the term "speech-language pathologist" doesn't quite capture the totality of our scope of practice. For example, speech-language pathologists also address the needs of persons who exhibit difficulties with cognitive functions (attention, memory, problem-solving), literacy, social interaction, and swallowing. Considering such a wide scope of practice, perhaps in the future a new term will be coined to describe who we are and what we do.

Dr. Donald R. Fuller has been a speech-language pathologist for 16 years. He is Chair of the Department of Communication Disorders at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA. His doctorate degree was earned from Purdue University in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

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