A short guide to cultural responsiveness in speech-language therapy

Culturally responsive practice is the awareness of one’s own culture and how it impacts your perception of the world. It is also the willingness to actively learn and adapt your therapy practice to others’ cultures, perspectives, and experiences. Cultural responsiveness is a journey, not a destination, that requires continued learning and growth. Culture includes one’s language/dialect, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, sexuality and gender, age, ethnicity, and more. 

Why is cultural responsiveness important for speech-language pathologists to establish in our practice? ASHA requires that speech-language pathologists “practice in a manner that considers the impact of cultural variables as well as language exposure and acquisition on the individual and their family.” Our clients have unique and diverse backgrounds impacting their access to our health services, the languages they speak, how they identify themselves, which holidays they celebrate, and what background knowledge they walk into the therapy room with. As therapists, it is our role to respect and provide services for our clients of all backgrounds and cultures. 

What can we do as speech-language pathologists to improve our practice in cultural responsiveness? The first step is to be self-aware of our own culture and how it impacts how we approach therapy, such as the language(s) and dialect(s) we speak and have familiarity with, which holidays we celebrate, and our perspectives of “right versus wrong.” The next step is to have genuine curiosity and interest in learning about our students’ cultures. With this knowledge, you can develop mutually beneficial goals with your client. From there, incorporating culturally appropriate tools and resources for your clients in speech therapy further affirms respect and interest in your client’s culture. As mentioned before, this process is ongoing and there is no final destination. Cultural responsiveness requires continued self-assessment, learning, and growth. 

A few practical ways to begin a culturally responsive practice:

  1. Build relationships with your clients founded in trust and mutual respect. 
  2. Ask your clients if they celebrate a holiday before incorporating holiday-themed materials in therapy.
  3. Encourage multilingualism. Research common language transfers, dialectal differences, and speech-sound differences amongst the languages your client speaks before assuming a disorder.
  4. Utilize dynamic assessment to gain a more well-rounded idea of where your client is at with their speech and language. Standardized assessments typically do not take multilingualism, background experience, or culture into consideration, all of which impact how a student performs on an assessment. 
  5. Build goals with your client that are mutually motivating and meaningful. 
  6. If providing feeding/swallowing therapy, include food that is a part of your client’s typical mealtime routine.
  7. Incorporate materials about members of their community (singers, artists, etc.) and holidays/events native to a culture and use traditional language/songs in therapy.
  8. Avoid assuming a client’s living arrangements or daily routines. For example, when talking about loved ones, refer to the child’s “adults” or “caregivers” rather than “parents/mom/dad.”
  9. Collaborate with the client’s team whenever possible (PTs, OTs, teachers, case managers, family members, etc.).
  10. Be sure to provide any paperwork sent home in the caregiver's native language. Utilize an interpreter when appropriate. 

Below are a few links to continue learning about cultural responsiveness and how to incorporate it in your practice: