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Taking culture into account

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Student explores responsive practice in speech-language pathology

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​Marcela Dow is a cognitive science major specializing in pre-professional speech-language pathology, who expects to graduate in May 2022. Dow, who is from Philadelphia, also is majoring in Spanish studies.

Editor’s note: Marcela Dow is a senior cognitive science major specializing in pre-professional speech-language pathology. This Q&A is one of a series of articles exploring the research that UD students have been pursuing. Though COVID-19 continues to shape some plans, students still can participate in hundreds of remarkable projects, in-person and remotely. To learn more, visit the Undergraduate Research Program website.

Q: What are you studying, where and with whom?

Dow: I am engaging in an independent research project as a part of the McNair Scholars Program, under the mentorship of Nina Straitman, a speech-language pathology clinician and instructor of linguistics and cognitive science, and Irene Vogel, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science. My research focuses on identifying the patterns of behavior that contribute to a culturally responsive practice in speech-language pathology for the Black and Latinx pediatric population. Specifically, I’m focusing on how speech-language pathologists define culturally responsive care and success in it, what factors help or hinder this success, and what tactics individuals use in their own practice to make it culturally responsive. The goal is to uncover patterns and themes that are actively used in assessment and intervention and to contribute to the growing conversation on methods of culturally responsive care at the individual level. I also hope to help identify the role and responsibility of institutions in helping therapists to provide the best care possible to diverse populations.

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Illustration with a quote from Dow

Q: How would you explain your work to a fifth grader or someone’s grandparent?

Dow: My study focuses on speech therapists and how well they can help the children they give speech therapy to. When helping children in speech therapy, it's important to think about how culture and where someone grew up might affect the way they speak. For example, some children might have an accent or use a different style of talking from the therapist, such as using different words or saying things in a different order. Just because someone speaks differently doesn’t mean it's wrong, and speech therapists need to be able to tell when it's just different and when children actually need help with their speech. I wanted to know how speech therapists make sure they know it’s not just a different way of talking.

Q: What draws you to research?

Dow: My introduction to research came from my mother, who has been doing research on urban education and Latinx students for as long as I can remember. Her passion for discovering the undiscovered and challenging the standards of teaching made me passionate about being a driving force of change in whatever field I choose to pursue. Research is a great way to push a field forward, and I wanted to be a part of that advancement as soon as I could.

Q: What motivated you to study this topic?

Dow: In my undergraduate program, I quickly noticed the lack of diversity within my major. As a Black and Latina woman, it is notable how few people of color there are in the classroom. The field of speech pathology itself is 92% white and 96% female, according to The American Speech–Language–Hearing Association. The population that speech pathologists serve, however, is much more diverse. I took my first class on culturally responsive practice earlier this year and noticed it was one of the smallest courses I had taken related to my major. This important knowledge was getting passed up by a lot of students who could have benefitted from it.

My goal became to figure out how therapists dealt with cultural differences in the “real world” after higher education. I figured many would be like the people in my major, having not taken any specific course related to the topic. I could look in the textbook and at the articles to see what scholars said therapists should be doing to be culturally responsive, but I want to know what therapists are actually doing, so I can eventually deduce what we, as a field, can do better to serve culturally and linguistically diverse populations.

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Illustration with another quote from Dow

Q: What have you found most surprising about this work so far?

Dow: Initially, I thought it would be difficult to find people who would be willing to speak with an undergraduate student they had never met for 30 minutes, but many of the participants were excited to speak with me, ask me questions about the research and tell me about their personal experiences. In terms of the findings in my study, one of the things that surprised me is that many therapists shared how 2020 affected their ability to provide culturally appropriate care to their clients. Some spoke about how the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd brought unprecedented awareness to the way that race and culture interacts with different institutions — and speech pathology was no exception. Many participants talked about how the events of 2020 created conversations about cultural differences and their impact on care, which had not happened before.

Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?

Dow: Speech-language pathologists serve real children and serving those children in the best way possible is at the heart of this research. Participants in this study told stories of success and failure in therapy for diverse populations. This is important, as it gives other therapists the opportunity to read and learn from the study and potentially better their practice. This study shows the need for comprehensive graduate school education development for culturally responsive care, new methods for developing institutionally based change, and more culturally representative standardized testing. All these things are further research opportunities.

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Q: How does this experience align with your career goals?

Dow: My future career goal is to help ensure that every child receives appropriate speech and language services that consider every aspect of their personhood, especially their culture. Communication and language are such intimate, personal aspects of a person's being and the needs of the individual receiving services must be considered at every level of care. By discovering what therapists are currently doing, struggling with and what supports they need to achieve care that considers cultural differences completely, I am better equipped to help ameliorate the places where the field falls short. I see this project as a pilot study, and I hope to explore some of the real-world applications discussed earlier at some point in the future. In the near-term, my goal is to present and publish my findings throughout the school year.

Q: What do you do when you are not doing research?

Dow: Some of my favorite things to do include camping, hiking, kayaking and generally all things outdoors. I love crocheting, baking, reading and traveling, as well as spending time with my family and friends, just hanging out, watching movies and eating.

Article by Karen B. Roberts; illustrations by Jeffrey C. Chase

Published Sept. 30, 2021

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Marcela Dow, a cognitive science major specializing in pre-professional speech-language pathology, conducted research into how speech-language pathologists provide culturally responsive care.
10/3/2021
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