Communication Disorders in an Age of Impact

by Louise Cummings

Nottingham Trent University, UK

As academic researchers, linguists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work on the lives of individuals and on the growth of national economies. There is one field within linguistics where impact is more readily demonstrated than in any other. This is the study of the many ways in which language and communication can break down or fail to develop normally in children and adults with communication disorders. These disorders are the focus of a recently published handbook, the Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, which brings together 30 chapters on all aspects of the classification, assessment and treatment of communication disorders. The chapters in this volume will speak for themselves. My purpose in this short extract is to demonstrate how, in an age of impact, the case for the academic study and clinical management of communication disorders could not be more persuasive.

Giving VoiceI begin by revisiting a quotation which I included in the preface to the handbook. It is a comment which was made in 2006 by Lord Ramsbotham, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. He remarked: ‘When I went to the young offender establishment at Polmont, I was walking with the governor, who told me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist’. This statement focuses attention quite forcefully on an issue which clinicians and educationalists have known for years: the remediation of impoverished language and communication skills can have a significant, positive impact on one’s life chances and experiences in a range of areas. These areas include social integration, psychological well-being and occupational and educational success. Conversely, the neglect of language and communication impairments presents a significant barrier to academic achievement, vocational functioning and social participation. The area of professional practice which aims to mitigate these harmful consequences of communication disorders – speech and language therapy (UK) or speech-language pathology (US) – has played an increasingly important role in recent years in raising awareness of these disorders. That increased awareness has been felt not just among members of the public in the form of greater tolerance and understanding of communication disorders, but also in policy areas which have the power to transform the provision and delivery of speech and language therapy services.

It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm.

If the human impact of communication disorders does not persuade the reader of the merits of this area of academic and clinical work, then perhaps the economic implications of these disorders will make the case even more convincingly. A report1 commissioned by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK and published in 2010 found that speech and language therapy across aphasia, specific language impairment and autism delivers an estimated net benefit of £765 million to the British economy each year. In 2000, the economic cost of communication disorders in the US was estimated to be between $154 billion and $186 billion per year, which is equal to 2.5% to 3% of the Gross National Product.2 It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm. This is in addition to the abdication of any type of social responsibility to the welfare of its people.


 1 Marsh, K., Bertranou, E., Suominen, H. and Venkatachalam, M. (2010) An Economic Evaluation of Speech and Language Therapy. Matrix Evidence.

2 Ruben, R.J. (2000) ‘Redefining the survival of the fittest: Communication disorders in the 21st century’, Laryngoscope, 110 (2 Pt 1): 241-245.

The Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders
, is now available from Cambridge University Press.

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