It is not that difficult to get an appointment with S. Manoharan, audiologist and speech pathologist at Madras Audiology and Speech Therapy over the phone, but he makes sure not much time is wasted.

“I have a three-year-old patient sleeping. I have to test her before she gets up,” he says very softly, slowly inserting the electrodes into the child while her anxious mother hovers around asking, “She doesn't respond when I call her, and has not started speaking yet. Is something wrong?”

This is no unique situation for Dr. Manoharan as he regularly deals with patients with problems in speech and hearing, cleft lips, stammering, mental retardation, hearing loss and neurological disorders.

Bridging the gap between the sense of hearing and skill of listening to help people communicate better is what these audiologists — many of them also speech pathologists and therapists — do.

Singers, vendors, teachers and politicians — we are a boon to all of them, say these doctors, proud of the fact that they probably are the only breed of doctors found in schools, companies, special education centres, language laboratories, apart from clinics and hospitals.

Therapy follows after pathologists diagnose the problems of stammering or other articulation. This includes regular exercises, modification techniques to help the patient speak slowly, control of muscles and pressing the larynx at correct places apart from counselling.

R. Ranjith, principal, MERF Institute of Speech and Hearing, says: “Since children's coordination is not that fine, we break the language into phonemics, indentifying the sounds they find difficult, help them sequence and comprehend them. Children-directed speech, also called ‘motherese' helps us — biscuit becomes biki and chocolate choky,” says Dr. Ranjith.

“But there is a certain amount of lack of fluency seen in children till about six years of age. Parents should not take harsh corrective measures, otherwise the child would develop fear,” says Dr. Manoharan.

Compared to the U.S. where there are over 30,000 professional speech pathologists, we have just about 1,500 registered professionals, says Dr. Manoharan. “Our society believes certain problems can never be alleviated. Not many parents seek help when their child is born deaf or has mental retardation,” says Prakash Bhoominathan, of Speech Language and Hearing Sciences, at Sri Ramachandra University.

Unfortunately, there is no real voice culture here. In the west, opera singers start only after testing if their norms are within the limits.Ideally the rule is — if you speak for two minutes, give your vocal chords rest for a minute, says Dr. Ranjith.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012