To lose the joy of living speech, or never to learn it, would be to be starved of some of the consolation of intimacy. As a speech and language therapist, you reach out to people who are in that loneliness and help them to communicate with friends and family, and with the world around them.
A common perception is that speech and language therapy is all about elocution, but there's much more to it than that. Therapists are concerned with everything to do with the vocal tract, so they help people who cannot swallow to eat safely, as well as relieving the isolation of people with speech problems, from children who are slow to communicate through to stammerers and stroke victims, and older people suffering from dementia.
The curious blend of linguistics, people skills and medical know- how make speech and language therapy a perfect career change for people with an interest in language who are looking for a more meaningful vocation. Many come to the profession later in life.
Amy Jensen, 32, spent her twenties working as a teacher of English as a foreign language, travelling and learning new languages. She was drawn into speech and language therapy after sharing a cab with a therapist in Dublin. 'All the wee bits of the jigsaw just came together nicely,' she says. 'I was interested in languages and biology, and educating adults.' When she started her BSc course at City University, she knew she had made the right decision. 'I felt spoilt for choice. It was great,' she says. 'There's something for everybody, from understanding muscle movement to linguistics, from babies' development of speech to elderly neurology.'
Jensen now works as a therapist at the Homerton Hospital in Hackney, helping people discharged from hospital to live independently. Most of the people she deals with have had their lives transformed by strokes and brain injuries.
She only has a short time to help them to return to ordinary life, so has to practise the simplest therapy, giving people back their confidence by taking them out and doing the things they used to do together.
Mei Lee, 37, was more than happy to turn her back on her old job. Now a therapist, Lee did an English literature degree at Durham University and worked as an advertising copywriter for many years before doing a postgraduate diploma at City University.
Her reason for changing career will be familiar to anyone in the media. 'I wanted to do something more meaningful,' she says. 'And speech and language therapy is a great profession for a career change. It's very satisfying. For anyone who's interested in people and optimising their quality of life, I'd recommend it.'
When she was younger, Lee wanted to be a doctor, but dissecting cadavers did not appeal. Then a close family friend suffered a stroke. 'He had been an eminent politician and doctor, and his mind was still intact, but he had minimal vocalisation,' she says. 'I thought it would be marvellous to help him to communicate.'
Lee now deals with adults with speech, swallowing, voice and communication impairment across the spectrum, from teaching teachers with strained voices to project, to helping stroke victims to communicate and eat. Most of her time is spent dealing with people with voice problems, from housewives to actors.
She also works with the families of stroke patients, helping them to communicate using a combination of sounds and gestures. Key words can be used to stand in for sentences, and family members are encouraged to use eye contact and gestures as communication.
Working with a family in this way can help patients to lead a more normal life. 'It's a very meaningful job,' she says. 'In your daily work, you make such a difference. Speaking and swallowing are key to quality of life. You take them for granted " until they're gone.'
While Jensen and Lee help people who have lost those abilities, many therapists focus on people as they learn them, as children. …