How did I get into this?
One Speech & Language Therapist working with trans clients
When I talk about my work and what I want to achieve with Express YOUR Gender, I am often met with curiosity and the question, “What made you get in to this area?” or “Why are you so passionate about transgender issues?” Some wonder if I am trans myself, or if I have a family member who is trans. There must be a deeply personal reason why someone would “get into this,” right? Not really.
It was during my final year clinical placement, as part of my degree in Clinical Speech and Language Studies at Trinity College Dublin, when I first heard about the need for Speech & Language Therapy (SLT) services for the transgender community. The dominant conversation throughout that final year among my peers at college was about our job prospects once we qualified. The recession was here and the Irish Health Service Executive had introduced a recruitment embargo a year or two prior, and most of us were not hopeful about getting a job in Speech & Language Therapy in Ireland. Some of my classmates went on to further study, some took up jobs in the UK or Singapore, some volunteered as SLTs with the hopes of eventually gaining employment, some actually got a full-time job straight away, and some, like me, went into private practice.
So, there I was on my final clinical placement at a community project in Tallaght West (The Childhood Development Initiative by An Cosán, recent winner of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Impact Award). We provided early intervention SLT services to children at nine different pre-schools. It was at one of those pre-schools that I met Dr. James Kelly, an inspired Clinical Psychologist who was working as a Parent/Carer Facilitator there. He told me about the private work he did with the transgender community and was interested in my work as a Speech & Language Therapist as he was looking for one to join him at what was then Diamond Therapy, a clinical service for people with gender and sexuality concerns. He had found it very difficult up until then to refer his clients for voice and communication therapy within existing public and private Speech & Language Therapy services.
I was instantly intrigued. I had studied modules around gender, power, identity, equality, throughout my primary degree and in my clinical degree I had a special interest in voice disorders and mental health. I had worked, before going to college, on an EU project around gender equality in the workplace. This was my thing. Could it really be possible that, during a time when prospects were so low for graduating Speech & Language Therapists (SLTs) to get any sort of relevant employment, an opportunity had come along that literally married all of my clinical, academic and personal interests and was going to allow me to do what I was qualified to do?
I started researching. I read journal article after journal article about how SLTs help transgender clients to modify (feminise/masculinise) their voices, about the impact of voice on quality of life. I read about a group voice therapy programme for trans women in Vancouver. I dove in to websites written by trans people for trans people. I wanted to really get a feel for what life was like for this under-represented and under-served community, in particular the current situation in Ireland. I told Dr. Kelly that I would be in touch as soon as I qualified, that this was what I wanted to do. I asked one of my college lecturers who had expertise in voice disorders and experience working with transgender clients, to be my clinical supervisor, and she agreed. It all lined up.
Once the exams were over I started making arrangements to meet members and representatives of the trans community in Ireland. I needed to let people know that I was here and what my service included, but I also wanted to hear real-life stories and experiences from trans people. I knew that there was only so much I could learn from reading, and many of the books and articles I had accessed were based on experiences in other countries. What was Ireland like? I was lucky to be welcomed to a peer support meeting for trans people in Dublin – in that hour alone I learned more than I could have from any number of books. I met with staff from TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland) who have been wonderful colleagues in the years since.
In June 2011 I welcomed my first trans client to my tiny office above a pub in Smithfield, Dublin 7.
This was to be the start of a most inspiring, challenging and rewarding career path and I don’t think I ever looked back.