Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Dysarthria is the term used to describe slurred or unclear articulation of speech. It is a term that is familiar to speech and language therapists.
However, most people in the general public have never heard of dysarthria nor do that have an awareness of the speech changes that can occur due to a progressive neurological condition (Multiple Systems Atrophy, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, Motor Neurone Disease (MND)/ALS etc). As a result, when they encounter someone who has slurred or unclear speech, they might wrongly assume that the person is drunk or incapacitated.
Family members and friends of a person who has dysarthria quickly become aware that their speech has changed. Sadly, many often feel uncomfortable talking to a person with more severe speech difficulties and begin to avoid them. This can lead to the person with dysarthria becoming very socially isolated.
So what makes others uncomfortable? Often people are afraid they will not understand what the person is saying and they don't want to ask for multiple repetitions. They feel that doing so will make the person with dysarthria feel bad. Sometimes they might talk at the person or talk to others in the room without involving the person with dysarthria. While this is certainly better than avoiding the person altogether, it can still make them feel left out and socially isolated.
As speech therapists, we can work with people with progressive conditions to teach strategies to improve speech clarity, and carry out voice banking at an early stage. We can also introduce a pacing tool such as Conversation Paceboard and text-to-speech apps such as Assistive Express and Predictable before verbal communication becomes more difficult.
We also play an important role in educating others in how to support communication. However, we often only have contact with spouses. We therefore need to encourage people with dysarthria to try to open up to others and to tell them what helps. One way of doing so is by using a wallet-sized card.
It can be hard for many people with a neurological condition to open up in this way. However, doing so can make them feel more at ease when talking to others and in turn make others more comfortable when talking to them.