I have always been aware of a lack of diversity in my clinical profession. I don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of bilingual people who were on my training course (Including me- German-English bilingual). If I were asked to count the number of people of a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background it would be even fewer- three to be precise. As I have gone into academia I have noticed even less diversity in this career pathway. I have met few BAME researchers, and even fewer BAME speech and language researchers. In fact I can tell you I have only met one!
Having grown up in London, and being the child of a migrant parent I realise that speech and language therapy is a fairly unique discipline. Most of my Eastern European family didn’t know what it was, nor that I might work with people with dementia. And when I went into research the work I actually did seemed even more abstract for many of them. Although the notion of actually having a PhD was considered more of a real entity than my clinical role- having a Dr in front on my name was important. When I speak to many of my friends and colleagues of BAME backgrounds I realise these may be a similarity there. Many report little knowledge of these disciplines in their family and communities they grew up in.
The thing is that when working clinically the difference between me and most of my colleagues (white English speaking middle class females) and my clients living with stroke, brain injury and dementia (lower socioeconomic economic, often not white, often male and often with English as a second language) was quite apparent. When I worked in mental health settings the trust would emphasises that the staff were supposed to reflect our clients. But really and truly we just didn’t!
Dementia does not discriminate – people of all backgrounds and ethnicities are affected. Yet all too often I hear colleagues querying whether a patient would benefit from speech and language therapy if they do not speak English well. Secondly I often wonder about the relevance of the research I read. Participants are often selected based on a criteria that excludes people who do not have English as a first language. This means much of the research done, which in dementia happens to be done in the aging developed (predominantly white English speaking) countries may not be quite relevant to the people I am working with clinically. Why are we creating such homogenous groups for research when our patients are not homogenous? I do, of course, know some of the answers to this, but still find it frustrating.
So, in an effort to push back I am trying to act as an ally. I am in a BAME working group at my children’s primary school in north London – and would like to help promote research and speech and language therapy as a potential career pathway to all the kids there. I am listening to my BAME colleagues, patients and friends. I am reviewing my inclusion criteria on my studies more carefully. I have written this blog and am keen to identify barriers that I can help break down. I want to do better for my patients, my participants, my children and all the future generations of researchers and speech and language therapists. I want to do more.
Ed: NIHR Dementia Researcher is committed to ensuring that the content we produce meets the needs and requirements of all sections of our diverse membership. We know that finding time to write blogs, whilst studying, researching and working is difficult, however, we would very much welcome more contributions from our Black, Asian and minority ethic research community drop us a line firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Anna Volkmer is a Speech and Language Therapist and researcher in Language and Cognition, Department of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London. Anna is researching Speech and language therapy interventions in language led dementia and was once voted scariest speech and language therapist (even her children agree).