By Tamer Abouras
If you happened to catch the Democratic Presidential Debate last week, you might have noticed something a little odd for 2015: not only was there a Vietnam reference, but former Virginia Senator Jim Webb reiterated his opposition to affirmative action, a topic which has largely been absent from the national discourse since the late 1990s.
The political and socioeconomic implications of an affirmative action policy aside, it’s fairly non-debatable that it isn’t a bad thing for institutions of any kind — and particularly those purporting to carry out a public good — to be somewhat emblematic and representative of the public they attempt to serve.
It helps, if nothing else, to have a bit of a shared perspective from where the person you’re working with is coming from. While it may not be essential, it certainly cannot hurt to be of the same racial background as the person you’re assisting. And it could be extremely helpful.
The 2014 Year-End Report from ASHA on member and affiliate counts found that a startlingly low 7.8 percent of all members identify as a racial minority, a figure which lags well behind the most recent U.S. Census data from 2010, where a reported 27.6% of Americans identified as such.
That report, which accounts for audiologists as well as SLPs, speaks to the broad diversity problem felt within the field of speech therapy, especially with regard to how it can better serve large minority populations in urban settings.
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To that end, Hampton University's Communicative Sciences and Disorders department recently received a $1.2 million grant to train minority speech-language pathologists. 24 graduate students will receive scholarships over a period of five years in exchange for committing to work at least three years in an impoverished school district upon graduating.
Said Tamara Freeman-Nichols, Graduate Coordinator for the department and a co-investigator for the grant, "We were just looking for a niche to fill, so we noticed that many of our students didn't always choose to work in the schools as a career and particularly didn't always choose to work in schools in urban settings, where a large number of students whose families were poor. That's the niche we wanted to try to fill, training our students to have empathy for and passion for working with this population so that we could somehow address the shortage in the field.”
Her sentiment was echoed by Carla Jones, Associate Professor and principal investigator for the grant.
"So for a number of different reasons there has been this gap. At the same time there is the shortage in qualified personnel. The need becomes kind of multiplied, for lack of a better word, when we are faced with challenges associated with poverty. There is always, as in many fields, a shortage of qualified minorities. In order to address simultaneously some of those gaps, we sought this training grant as a mechanism to do that."
This is a great initiative that incentivizes the provision of first-rate, highly qualified speech-language pathologists to traditionally under addressed areas of the country. That’s an affirmative action worth supporting regardless of what decade it is.