NYMC Professor Fights Stigma Surrounding Speech Disorders Through Her Work and Teaching

Monica McHenry, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, professor of speech-language pathology (SLP) and director of the Voice and Motor Speech Lab

Monica McHenry, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, professor of speech-language pathology (SLP) and director of the Voice and Motor Speech Lab, can’t envision herself in any other profession. From a young age, her environment included people from different parts of the world, exposing her to different types of speech and leaving her fascinated with the science behind it. Since her undergraduate studies, the field has evolved a great deal but she believes it can be improved, especially when it comes to reducing stigma for people who struggle with speech.

With a mother from Switzerland, it was common for Dr. McHenry to have family friends visit from Europe, each person with a unique accent and way of speaking. Although accents can be challenging for a young person to understand, Dr. McHenry didn’t encounter problems when speaking with people whose first language wasn’t English, whether it was her mother’s friends or those in her community. “Some people do have a natural knack for different things, that was mine. I just thought it was the norm,” Dr. McHenry said.

While studying speech-language pathology in college, Dr. McHenry wasn’t quite fulfilled with the current state of the field and the variety in treatments, but after transferring to Pennsylvania State University, she said a summer seminar in speech science—which studies how physiology affects the way someone sound—gave her a newfound excitement for the speech-language landscape. “It was heaven,” Dr. McHenry said. “I thought that if this is part of the field, I think I can stay with it.”

Dr. McHenry remains fascinated by the physiological science, especially acoustics as it relates to what can affect the way someone sounds. She has found it incredibly rewarding to help those who struggle with speech find an effective way to communicate with those around them because many times, it gives them confidence and assurance that they may have lost due to their disorder. She recalls the first patient she encountered with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at Veterans Administration Hospital as having a profound effect on her as a speech-language pathologist.  He told her that people didn’t think he was a smart man because of his struggles with communication and working with this patient gave Dr. McHenry a better sense of the stigma that surrounded patients with speech disorders. “He was clearly an intelligent man, but sometimes people are judged by how they speak. I think it’s going to be slow to change that perception,” Dr. McHenry said.

Since working with that patient, Dr. McHenry has made it a focus of hers to make others aware of the stigma. “Working with him gave me tremendous empathy. It also made me realize that’s the kind of patient that I wanted to be working with,” she said.

Fighting the stigma is not only to educate the public, Dr. McHenry says, but help the patients who feel like they are not accepted by society due to their struggles, which can make social settings difficult and, in some cases, cause patients to withdraw from them.

“If you hate the way you sound, you’re not going to communicate, which is why withdrawal and isolation is common,” Dr. McHenry said.

When speaking with her students, she often emphasizes that in addition to hard work, speech-language pathologists must also be compassionate and understand how devastating the loss of communication can be for a human being. Promoting a humanistic approach, Dr. McHenry hopes that can lead to a future with less stigma and more understanding for patients, whether it be from patients’ families or the public.

“I think in an ideal world, society would be more accepting, but helping someone find a way to communicate makes the all the effort worthwhile,” Dr. McHenry said.

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