Monday, 7 February 2011

A stitch in time saves nine














In this weeks Observer I read with great sadness, the piece by Tracy McVeigh, "The King's Speech: Spending cuts threaten £765m legacy of speech and language therapy". In it we learn that along with everything other than bankers salaries, speech therapy is being cut. You're lucky if you don't know what a catastrophe that is. I certainly do.

My second son Sam was a honey coloured, sweet, smiley baby who developed normally in every way except he seemed completely disinterested in speaking and for that matter drawing. Aged 2, and after a referral from our vigilant health visitor we found out that he was deaf. After a diagnosis of fluid behind his ear drums he was put on an 18 month waiting list for surgery to insert grommets. This is quite a routine operation but the wait seemed unacceptable, the early years being so precious in terms of development, that we went privately and Sam had his surgery less than 2 weeks later.

I'll never forget that afternoon. My Mother, 8 week old daughter and I were waiting in Sam's hospital room when the operating theatre called up. After surgery Sam had woken up screaming. I ran downstairs and this terrified, inconsolable baby with dried blood is his butter coloured ears clung to me like a monkey. For the next few hours we lay together in his hospital bed and as each plane flew overhead or trolley trundled by, he sat upright, rigid with fear. You see he came round from the anaesthetic to hear sounds for the first time in his little life and it scared him to death. Even his own cries made him cry harder as the sound must have seemed deafening. His surgeon told me afterwards that Sam didn't need grommets, he had a rare condition where wax had collected in his outer ear with such density that it had formed compete casts of his ears which were estimated to have caused him approximately 90 per cent loss of hearing.

What followed was a general anaesthetic every 3 months as his ears kept stubbornly filling up again, and speech therapy, years and years of speech therapy.

Again Sam was failed by the state as all they were able to offer us was group therapy. There was a chronic national shortage of speech therapists, which meant that we could have group sessions with a minimum of 5 other acutely vulnerable children, for a maximum of six sessions at a time. What Sam really needed was help every a day, for many days. So we interviewed therapists and found a wonderful local woman, who worked with Sam on sounds, concepts and of course words. For years we calculated the cost of things like coats, shoes, family holidays, which became fewer and father apart, in units of speech therapy. But as much as it was a sacrifice, it was worth every penny.

You would think only two years of hearing loss could be quickly rectified but when it was time to go to school we knew Sam would struggle. One of the things you learn about deaf children is that hearing loss affects much more than just speech. Children who can't hear obviously struggle to speak but also find it hard to visualise. This means that they don't understand why you would want to draw and they therefore don't. If they don't draw they struggle to come to terms with the symbolism of letters and numbers, so reading, writing and arithmetic all remain frustrating riddles. Unlocking the mysteries of speech becomes critical to any hope of academic engagement.

Sam's school life started at Blossom House, in Wimbledon, such a kind place, which specialises in the education of children with communication problems. Then we tried a combination of part time Blossom House and part time local primary school with his speech therapist helping out at the primary school to enable Sam to make sense of what was going on and give his teacher some strategies to improve communications with him. All this time we were approaching the borough for support and were shuttled back and forth from the education department that told us every school had a budget for support and then to the school which told us that children's needs had to be prioritised and quiet, compliant but baffled Sam was nowhere near the front of the queue. I became unprintable on the subject of the then prevailing Government policy,  "Every child matters" that promised so much and delivered so little. Unprintable.

At Blossom House they focussed on concepts like 'over and under', 'before and after', unbelievably complex if you think about it, and left the alphabet for later on. Everything they did was taught by speech therapists. We all worked tirelessly to bring Sam the gift of speech.

Word finding, which I now know is a technical term, will always be tricky for Sam, and until he got to St James where he now is, with small class sizes and ambitious teachers; academic success and its concomitant self-esteem also eluded him. But I am eternally grateful to all those who helped us, and for where we are now with the lovely, kind, hard working (he learnt early on that for him things would always take longer and demand more) boy, brilliant at history, maths and his beloved art.

Without speech therapy Sam would have none of these things. I was sorry then about the national shortage of therapists, so badly paid that most went to the private sector, and am slack jawed at the Government's decision to reduce numbers still further. You see a stitch in time saves nine. In the Observer we are told that 70% of young offenders have a significant communication disorder that has gone untreated, costing an estimated £26 billion in underperformance at school, lack of job opportunities and criminal behaviour. As Kamina Gadhok, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists tells us, "if children do not enter school with the necessary communication skills, they will cost the system much more in the long term, quite apart from the effect on their own lives."

My advice to the Government, if they really want to save money, is to spend a lot, lot more on speech therapy. To do otherwise is a wilful act of human vandalism, even if you haven't seen 'The King's Speech'. Lionel Logue, the speech therapist made legend by the film, beautifully played by Geoffrey Rush, pictured above, helped not only George VI but also in the establishment of the the Royal College who are now backing their Giving Voice campaign to promote the need for speech therapy and argue against cuts. Lionel Logue would have approved I think, I know I do.

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