Speech pathology a vital part of Vision Australia's support for people who are blind or have low vision

08 March 2018

Children who are blind or have low vision can face challenges when it comes to developing communication and other social skills alongside their peers, which makes the work of Vision Australia's paediatric service providers extremely important. 

The leading blindness and low vision service provider offers a range of specialised paediatric supports, including areas many may not automatically associate with vision loss, such as speech pathology. 

"When people think of speech pathology they often associate it with things like stuttering a lisp. For most people it's something they think of as sound related, rather than having to do with vision loss," Vision Australia Paediatric Speech Pathologist Keegan Hewitt says. 

"The scope of speech pathology can cover a range of areas, including non-verbal communication skills, literacy and feeding, as well as speech sound development and the development of language" Keegan says. 

All of those skills are important when it comes to a person's ability to participate in social interaction with their peers and educational and work environments, both as a child and later in life. 

In terms of communication, Keegan says much of her work involves supporting clients around the area of non-verbal communication and implementing alternative forms of communication, like different augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices.

"There's a lot more to communication than just talking to someone, what we do with our hands and the rest of our body can make a huge difference to our interactions with others," she says. 

"For people who are blind or have low vision, there's the likelihood they'll miss out on picking up those cues. For me that means working with clients to break down what different non-verbal cues mean and helping them to understand how they can impact communication." 

Similar to how they may miss out on to the non-verbal side of communication, Keegan says children who are blind or have low vision may face challenges developing their literacy skills if they don't get the same exposure to books and other written material as their sighted peers. 

"Even if they aren't able to read themselves, it's important for children who are blind or have low vision to still have exposure to books and written material from a young age".

"If children miss out on reading or being read to at a young age, they can face challenges when it comes to developing their phonological awareness skills which could potentially impact on their literacy skills and speech sound development going forward."

In terms of feeding, Keegan says the work of a Vision Australia Paediatric Speech Pathologist revolves around supporting clients to be able to fully participate in social settings. 

"When it comes to feeding it can often be about supporting clients to move on to a different food stage. For example, you might have a child that's got to the age of six who has a sensory issue and is struggling to move on from eating purees or similar forms of food. 
"As we mature, much of our social interactions revolve around food so developing eating habits that are socially appropriate is important so people who are blind or low visioned don't feel isolated during these activities."  

As a Queensland based Paediatric Speech Pathologist, Keegan works with clients through the school system in the state, which can assist with the early detection of challenges a child may be facing and subsequent service intervention. 

"If a child is blind or has low vision, early intervention across all allied health disciplines has been proven to be a key factor in improving the quality of life of that child.

"It can be quite challenging if children are entering post school transition and don't have a functional form of communication. Like learning any language, whether it be spoken or using an AAC device, children need exposure and practice to master these systems and so do their communication partners. 

"If children are reaching the age of 15 or 16 and haven't had that support in place, the success of the AAC devices can be minimal and often becomes forgotten post school. Which leaves these individuals without a voice and becoming passive or disengaged towards any communication exchange." 

Like all Vision Australia services, Keegan says paediatric support providers work with clients depending on their individual needs. 

"Our goal is to work with the children and their family in a collaborative manner in the same way that an occupational therapist or anybody else would.

"We treat all our clients on a case by case basis. We work with the family and other support individuals to identify communication goals and the steps and strategies involved to achieve those goals." 
For more on Vision Australia's Paediatric Services, head to our website or get in touch via info@visionaustralia.org or 1300 84 74 66.