Dynamic Duos: How Interpreters and Speech-Language Pathologists Collaborate to Serve Children with Disabilities

Learn how speech-language pathologists and interpreters collaborate to effectively serve children with communication disorders in Minnesota schools, as well as the implications and future challenges for both professions.

Interpreting and speech-language pathology are professions centered in language and communication. Interpreters facilitate communication among people who don’t share a common language. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) work with individuals of all ages to diagnose speech and communication problems and provide therapy to improve communicative functioning. So, what happens when these worlds meet?

In the following, you’ll learn some of the ways in which interpreters and SLPs in Minnesota collaborate to assist children and youth with disabilities in the public school system. The information covered here is based on a session I gave with co-presenters Cynthia McInroy (a speech-language pathologist for Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota) and Heidi Wilson (a speech-language pathologist for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota) at ATA’s 62nd Annual Conference last October.

Why the Need?

SLPs work in medical and school settings across the country to address the physical aspects of speech production and the cognitive functions that underlie language. In public schools, SLPs work with students whose primary disability affects speech and language, but they also serve students with a wide range of other conditions, including cognitive and physical impairments and autism spectrum disabilities. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a national organization with affiliates in every state, sets certification standards for SLPs and audiologists. While ASHA doesn’t offer separate certifications for bilingual SLPs or audiologists, it collects information on members who self-identify as bilingual and as bilingual service providers.

According to ASHA, although many efforts are underway to recruit and diversify the field, SLPs are predominantly White, English-speaking, and female. Only 8% of ASHA members, including both SLPs and audiologists, self-identified as bilingual service providers in 2020. This figure included 14,958 ASHA-certified SLPs and 885 audiologists. Members of ASHA spoke 82 languages, excluding American Sign Language and other forms of sign language, but the majority of bilingual SLPs (10,208, or 68%) provided services in Spanish and English.1

Figure 1: St. Paul Public Schools—Home Languages Other than English of Enrolled Students (2020–21)

School Demographics

The availability of qualified bilingual SLPs in no way matches the linguistic diversity of the U.S. student population. A brief look at the demographics for St. Paul Public Schools, one of the largest and most diverse districts in Minnesota, illustrates this. The district served over 34,000 students in 2020. Almost half of all students (46%) spoke one of 115 languages at home and potentially have parents that need interpreting and translation services.2 A smaller percentage (28%) of total enrollment were classified as English learners (ELs).3 (See Figure 1.)

An Expanded Role for Interpreters

St. Paul Public Schools have a long-established Latino community, and the district has welcomed successive waves of refugees from Southeast Asia, Somalia, other areas of Africa, and, most recently, Myanmar. SLPs in this district have always had to adapt quickly to serve language groups for whom there are few or no published resources and for whom the school district has no licensed bilingual providers.

St. Paul Public Schools first formed a multidisciplinary special education team to evaluate and identify disabilities among multilingual students in the 1970s, when large numbers of Hmong refugees began arriving. Interpreters have been an integral part of this team since its earliest days. Currently, the district has 22 positions for special education interpreters for children ages birth through 21, some of which were vacant at the time I prepared this article:

  • Amharic (1 position)
  • Hmong (6 positions)
  • Oromo (1 position)
  • Sgaw-Karen (5 positions)
  • Somali (4 positions)
  • Spanish (5 positions)

Although staff interpreters carry the title “special education interpreter,” they have a broad role within the schools. They schedule meetings, conduct parent interviews, and are frequently the first person on the EL/special education team to have contact with families. They interpret for meetings with parents and school personnel, but also assist with native language evaluations, review assessment materials to ensure cultural relevance, and translate documents. They are also active participants in regular team meetings to review cases.

Interpreters work closely with SLPs in St. Paul Public Schools. SLPs are responsible for evaluating the native language for all ELs referred for a special education evaluation. They determine whether a communication impairment exists, identify strengths and weaknesses in the home language, and provide information that aids in evaluating other skills areas. To determine if a student has a speech-language impairment, the SLP must show that the problem exists in the native language as well as in English. Interpreters are essential in this process because they gather information about how students communicate in their home language.

The role of the special education interpreter is considered a higher-level position within the school district. Interpreters who join the EL/special education team have a variety of educational and employment experiences. Newly hired interpreters receive coaching from a licensed staff member and an experienced interpreter serves as their mentor. They also receive training in special education compliance and on using the school district’s system for logging contacts and services.

Creating Partnerships to Enhance Training

The Minnesota Department of Education has worked closely with the EL/special education teams in St. Paul and Minneapolis to develop special education guidelines used throughout the state. The state guidelines, The EL Companion to Promoting Fair Evaluations, integrate interpreters and cultural liaisons into evaluation procedures (there’s even a chapter called “Working with Interpreters and Cultural Liaisons”4). In 2015, the Minnesota Department of Education also developed its Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Educational Interpreters of Spoken Languages in collaboration with the University of Minnesota.5

In 2016, the Minnesota Department of Education initiated a collaboration between the Minnesota Speech-Language-Hearing Association (MNSHA) and the Interpreting Stakeholders Group (ISG). The Upper Midwest Translators and Interpreters Association (UMTIA), an ATA chapter, has also been involved in this partnership. The collaboration was informed by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s principles of interprofessional practice, part of the organization’s strategic plan. Interprofessional practice encourages SLPs to “learn about, from, and with colleagues from different specialties” to improve outcomes for students.6 The principles of community engagement enhance interprofessional practice with the goal of forming long-term, reciprocal relationships. The relationships among these organizations are based upon mutual respect, similar values, and a common goal:

  • Interpreters and SLPs specialize in communication.
  • Interpreters and SLPs work in both health care and school settings.
  • Interpreters and SLPs are bound by codes of ethics and professional standards.
  • Interpreters and SLPs need to work together to establish parameters for serving multilingual children and adults with communication impairments.

This collaboration has resulted in a dynamic training where interpreters and SLPs come together to exchange information and define professional practices.

Dynamic Duos

Dynamic Duos is an annual forum for SLPs and interpreters co-sponsored by ISG, UMTIA, MNSHA, and the Minnesota Department of Education. When the planning first began for this event, it was important to identify representatives from all organizations that were willing to move in the direction of bi-directional training and put in the necessary time to establish trust. An essential step was to discuss the terminology of speech-language pathology and interpreting to gain an understanding of the basic differences in how the fields define terminology such as “language” and “fluency.” Once the decision was made to hold a collaborative forum, the planning committee also had to negotiate significant differences in “conference culture” between speech-language pathologists and interpreters, including:

  • Registration Procedures: Determine whether to offer registration in advance vs. the day of the event.
  • Materials: Determine the comfort level of both groups with digital handouts vs. print.
  • Scheduling: Determine whether to hold the event during working hours for the convenience of school employees vs. outside of paid working hours to accommodate the schedules of freelance interpreters.
  • Continuing Education: Determine the continuing education needs of school employees vs. freelance interpreters.
  • Location: Determine a location that was low cost, centrally located, and had available free parking.

Four Dynamic Duos forums have been held to date as in-person events, with an interruption in 2020 due to the pandemic. Forums were held on Saturday mornings to accommodate the schedules of freelance interpreters. Each organization registered its own members and arranged for continuing education units, charging their members a small fee to cover the cost. The Minnesota Department of Education has paid the registration fee for school employees as an incentive to attend outside of regular working hours.

A common element for each Dynamic Duos forum has been the opportunity for SLPs to learn about professional interpreting standards and practices and for interpreters to learn more about the field of speech-language pathology and communication disorders. (We’ve found that many SLPs are unaware that professional ethics and standards for interpreters exist.) Forums have also included presentations of case studies of specific activities by SLP/interpreter groups, including challenges and solutions that can be put into practice to best serve clients.

Through discussions and post-forum surveys, participants have identified critical linguistic and cultural issues. For example:

  • How can SLPs and interpreters navigate cultural attitudes toward disabilities?
  • What are best practices for interpreting in languages that lack corresponding vocabulary for technical terms?
  • How can SLPs become more aware of these linguistic and cultural challenges?

Other issues that have been identified through these discussions fall within the day-to-day logistics of working professionals. For example:

  • SLPs need to schedule more time for pre- and post-sessions with interpreters (briefing and debriefing), but scheduling software and billing may pose barriers.
  • Interpreters have concerns for professional liability if they contribute information used when determining eligibility for special education services, but some employers don’t currently provide liability insurance.

The Dynamic Duos forums have taught us valuable lessons and presented key considerations for the future. Among them:

  1. SLPs need to partner with other language professionals to meet the needs of children and adults with communication disorders. One partnership model is to expand the role of the interpreter, as is the case in St. Paul Public Schools. This raises a number of questions:
    • Can this model be sustained and replicated in schools around the country?
    • If so, should the professional’s role be given a name other than “interpreter” and have its own code of ethics?
    • What other steps are needed to establish professional standards and support this role?
    • Is it ethical for one person to help gather information used to identify a disability and to also interpret for meetings when information is conveyed to parents? How can role boundaries and ethics be negotiated when schools have limited resources?
  2. Parameters for serving multilingual children and adults with communication disorders should be established collaboratively by professional organizations representing SLPs and professional interpreters. Procedures need to be incorporated into best practices guidelines and supported by education administration (local, state, and federal government) and higher education.
    • How can leadership and partnerships among organizations be established and maintained? In the case of Minnesota, one of the partner interpreter organizations was dissolved in 2021 due to the pandemic. How can professional organizations for interpreters be stabilized and engaged in developing collaborative practices?
    • Through its Dynamic Duo forums, practitioners in Minnesota have gathered valuable information about best practices and identified challenges. How can the lessons learned be used to transform school policies and procedures?
  3. SLPs will always need to partner with other language professionals to meet the needs of an ever-evolving array of languages. However, additional efforts are needed to recruit bilingual SLPs representing the diversity of languages in the U.S. Do professional interpreter and translator organizations have a role in these recruitment efforts?

The Need for Continued Dialogue and Collaboration

Interpreters and SLPs share the common goal of providing high-quality services to adults and children with communication disorders. State organizations and school districts in Minnesota are working together to identify ways of meeting this goal within the ethical confines of each profession. ATA members around the country are encouraged to expand upon the ideas presented here and continue the dialogue and partnership with SLPs.

In the meantime, I recommend the following resources:

  • Information regarding careers in speech-language pathology is available from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (www.asha.org/careers)
  • The EL Companion, Code of Ethics for Educational Interpreters and other resources, such as Somali and Hmong language glossaries, are available through the Minnesota Department of Education. (https://education.mn.gov/MDE/dse/sped/div/el/)
  • The Minnesota Speech-Language-Hearing Association is currently updating Talk with Me, a compilation of information and resources in many languages developed by SLPs with assistance from educational interpreters (https://mnsha.org/talk-with-me-manual)
  1. Demographic Profile of ASHA Members Providing Bilingual Services Year-End 2020 (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2021), https://bit.ly/ASHA-demographic.
  2. “Data Reports and Analytics: Student; Languages” (Minnesota Department of Education, 2021), https://bit.ly/MDE-languages.
  3. “Minnesota Report Card” (Minnesota Department of Education), https://bit.ly/MDE-report-card.
  4. “The English Learner Companion to Promoting Fair Evaluations” (Minnesota Department of Education, 2021), https://bit.ly/EL-disability.
  5. Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Educational Interpreters of Spoken Languages (Minnesota Department of Education, 2015), https://bit.ly/EL-disability.
  6. “Interprofessional Education/Interprofessional Practice (IPE/IPP)” (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2021), www.asha.org/practice/ipe-ipp.

Elizabeth Watkins was the state consultant for English learners with disabilities at the Minnesota Department of Education until her recent retirement. She has always seen interpreters as integral to the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She developed state and national resources for English learners with disabilities, including professional development for special education interpreters at the basic, intermediate, and advanced levels. She has also championed collaborative professional development, particularly in the field of speech-language pathology. elizabethwatkins3049@gmail.com

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