Looking Forward

More than 250,000 people live with disabilities following stroke, the most common of which is language impairment; every year nearly 40,000 children enter school with significant difficulties with speech, language and communication; approximately 750,000 people in the UK stammer. Some people have difficulties understanding speech and language, the meanings of words and sentences; others have difficulty putting their ideas into words and sentences or making themselves understood.

These difficulties can and usually do have far reaching consequences for an individual’s quality of life and ability to participate in society. Together they can be referred to as communication impairments and cover all the different aspects of talking and understanding.

They can arise in the context of a wide range of developmental and acquired conditions including autism, learning difficulties, hearing impairment, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, throat cancer and many others. For some people, there is no known cause of their difficulties. Despite their differences, they pose common challenges in terms of our knowledge; there is

  • poor understanding of why some people cope better than others
  • a lack of evidence about which therapy works best
  • poor use of emerging technology by professionals.

Our programme of research seeks solutions to these challenges. It is an applied programme focusing on the everyday experience and management of communication impairments by the people with these impairments, their families and carers, by the professionals who work with them and by the public who meet them every day.
The results will provide robust research evidence about:
What people can do for themselves: Not all children or adults with communication impairments experience long term negative effects. We want to find out what makes people resilient and share that with others.
What professionals can do to help: We want to identify the critical components of therapy programmes and with this knowledge build effective and accessible interventions
What technology can offer: We want to make better use of technology to diagnose and assess communication impairments and to enable independent access to intervention techniques for people in their own homes
The research programme has three interacting themes. The specific research aims and vision for each theme is shown below.

Life Span Perspectives

For many people, a communication impairment creates life-long challenges. So, although children with communication impairment may benefit from therapy and learn to talk and be able to communicate their messages, they may go on to have other related difficulties with their reading and spelling; some children with more severe difficulties will find themselves isolated and unable to find employment as they get older. Adults following a stroke or a head injury may find themselves unable to maintain their role in the family or at work because they can no longer communicate in the complex ways required by our society. If children who stammer are not treated successfully when they are younger, they may continue to stammer throughout their lives. The research programme aims to increase our understanding of the progression and impact of communication impairments over a person’s life span. We want to understand how people see their futures, what counts as an acceptable or positive future and what sorts of things help them to get there.
Our research aims to:

  • identify factors which facilitate or inhibit the progress of people with communication impairments
  • investigate the progression and impact of communication impairments across the life span of individuals and their families.

Our vision is to understand the positive possibilities and crisis points in their life journeys along with solutions that they and others have discovered so that the lives of people with communication impairments are enhanced.
The Research Unit will be targeting the following kinds of projects to achieve these aims:

  • longitudinal research which follows people through their life
  • documenting the perspective of the people themselves and their families
  • involving people with communication impairments in the design and implementation of research that is relevant to their concerns and questions.

The Intervention Process

Speech and language therapy is still a young profession and our understanding of how therapy works and what makes it effective is still in its infancy. There is much work to be done. We need to develop and test our theories of how therapy works, to identify the mechanisms that bring about change in people’s speech, language and communication and how we should organise therapy to be most effective and efficient.
Our research aims to:

  • critically evaluate current practice
  • develop innovative treatments
  • understand how and why therapy works

Our vision is that decisions that are taken by professionals and by people with communication impairments are informed by sound theory and evidence.
The Research Unit will be targeting the following kinds of projects to achieve these aims:

  • identifying components of therapy that are critical to its effectiveness
  • describing and evaluating existing interventions
  • investigating the impact and acceptability of interventions
  • developing and evaluating new interventions.

Innovative Use of Technology

Although there are pockets of high technology within the field of communication impairment (such as in the use of communication aids), there is still little use of the more straightforward computerised technology in everyday practice. However current and future generations will be using technology to enhance their everyday lives, to assist their communication, to solve problems, for their exercise and for leisure. It is therefore vital to bring this technology into the world of interventions for people with speech, language and communication difficulties, to capitalise on the innovative, interactive and engaging technologies that are becoming so much part of everyone’s lives. Technology provides an economically feasible way of delivering the intensity of treatment necessary to take advantage of recovery possibilities in the brain (neuroplasticity). This applies across a range of communication impairments.
Our research aims to:

  • improve the reliability and specificity of assessments, to improve diagnostics, facilitate access to treatment and support the management of clinical practice through the employment of technological support
  • harness a broad range of technology to support the delivery of speech and language therapy

Our vision is that computer technology is part of every therapist’s toolkit.
The Research Unit will be targeting the following kinds of projects to achieve these aims:

  • investigation of use of technology to increase the efficiency and accuracy of assessments and the measurement of outcomes
  • application of technologies to as yet untried areas of communication impairment
  • use of technology to mitigate the impact on quality of life of communication impairment
  • evaluation of the efficacy of technology mediated treatment.