Editorial: Britain's hidden disability is in the limelight

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

For too long now, children and young people with speech and language needs have been overlooked. One in ten children have a communication impairment in the UK.

Among young offenders, the figures are particularly alarming - most estimates show that about two out of three have communication problems and are grammatically incompetent.

This has hitherto been a cause less fashionable than certain universal concerns such as healthy eating or play. But the incapacity to communicate is Britain's great, hidden disability. Now, thanks to MP John Bercow's review, the interim findings of which are published this week, the issue is being thrust firmly into the spotlight (see Feature, p18).

The costs of ignoring the problem are profound. Studies consistently show children with communication difficulties are far more likely to be underachievers in education and employment. They have a greater probability of suffering mental health problems and can struggle to form relationships. And as speech and language therapists testify in our feature (p18), many communicate through aggression and violence and end up in the criminal justice system.

Bercow's recommendation to appoint a speech therapist for every young offender institution is sound, especially if it boosts offenders' employability in the outside world. That there are only five such therapists in the country is nothing short of scandalous. But the problem demands more intervention in the early years to help younger children and minimise the cost to taxpayer and society. As well as recruiting more therapists across the age range, the government should introduce screening as part of toddlers' health checks and follow through with tests at key transition points during children's growth. Skills required in dealing with communication needs should become embedded in mainstream teacher training.

Developments in speech and language provision could be a litmus test of joint working arrangements. The onus will be on children's trusts to capture the scale of the problem and co-ordinate provision in partnership with primary care trusts and children's services departments.

Through the findings of Bercow, who's own child is on the autistic spectrum, the mute button on this issue has at last been released. His final report is due in the summer. Let's hope the powers that be are listening in the meantime.

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