Imagine being a 3-year-old with a speech delay or difficulty, struggling to learn the basics of sounds and their meanings. Now imagine trying to master speech in a language other than the one your family speaks at home.

That’s the situation for the many people—young and not so young—working with speech pathologists who don’t speak their native language. A new program within the University of Maryland’s Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences (HESP) intends to make speech pathology more accessible to non-English speakers by offering a graduate bilingual certification.

“This is one thing that we can do to improve equity in healthcare and education outcomes,” said Jose Ortiz, a HESP assistant clinical professor who launched the program and serves as its coordinator. “If we’re not meeting the needs of a client based on their cultural or linguistic background, we’re not really doing our job.”

Students interested in the program must demonstrate proficiency in a language of their choice, and then participate in both academic and experiential coursework to learn the skills necessary to provide treatment to non-English speakers. Working with bilingual clients, taking courses in cultural and linguistic diversity, and studying assessment and intervention techniques are all part of the curriculum.

Though Ortiz estimates some 50 institutions around the country host similar programs, the bilingual certification program at Maryland—which five out of a total of 25 graduate students in speech pathology are pursuing this year—is the only one of its kind in the Washington, D.C., area.

Graduate student Sandra Guevara was inspired by her now-7-year-old nephew, Zach, to join the program. The family was raising Zach, who had delayed speech, in a dual Spanish-English language home, but when he started receiving speech services, “the Spanish kind of went away,” said Guevara. “The one person who was a Spanish speaker working for Montgomery County Infants and Toddlers Program had to leave, so his speech pathology services were just in English.”

Guevara said the ability to serve diverse groups of people is critical for a speech pathologist. “The challenges in our field have to do with a shortage of that education and not enough people wanting to go that extra mile to look up, for example, the characteristics of a different language that their student might speak.”

Guevara also hopes that more schools will consider adding such programs. “I think every program in the country should have something like this, especially with the growing bilingual population,” she said.