13. New School Phonology: Misidentification of Accent

The dynamics of the misplacement of at-risk children as played out in IEP meetings can be illustrated with a case study example drawn from prior practice some 10 years ago.  

A seventh-grade teacher referred a boy for speech and language evaluation because he had a “terrible speech problem” in class. He was hard to understand and he did not speak much. The teacher insisted he go to special education because he needed help badly.

The boy was a native American child. The first step was to review academic records. It turned out when he entered school he was tested for knowledge of his native language and was regarded as a competent speaker of Navajo. However, he did not take instruction in English as a second language because the school district dropped the program for lack of funding.

In an interview with the boy he was at first reluctant to talk until we found a good topic, rodeo riding. He became animated and highly verbal in English talking of riding, keeping horses and competition. The topic was a marker of male experience, such as English-speaking boys talking about baseball rather than dolls.

Although fluency and English grammar were at least adequate, phonological intelligibility was low. Simply stated, the boy had a heavy Navajo accent when speaking English. He was not disabled by any reasonable standard.

At the team meeting to consider the SLP;s findings, the recommendation not to place the boy in special education was not well received. The teacher in good faith argued the boy needed help and asked where else could he go? He was being held back academically by poor speech. The team accepted the SLP’s recommendation with difficulty.

Many processes are illustrated by this case example. Although the teacher did care about the Navajo boy, the speech accent made him hard to teach. Teachers know about “articulation problems” but they do not know about accent problems. The school district had no system for remediation other than special education. The team leaned toward placement to solve the teacher’s problem, and the SLP had to carry the full justification for saying no. There was pressure to place a minority child adding to the SLPs caseload. Once minority children are placed in special education, they tend to stay there. It would take a very intense program of accent reduction to prove an exit from speech was the right decision. The SLP would serve as remedial teacher.

Yes, there are times when SLPs take on children because of perceived need only. However, placing minority children in special education to provide remedial assistance can have grave impact on their lives far exceeding the risks of having a relatively minor “speech problem.”

“…students who are placed in special education have a higher likelihood of obtaining a certificate instead of a diploma. They also experience lower levels of achievement, high drop-out rates, low wages, increased teenage pregnancy, and social isolation” (Emstac).

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