For many people, being able to speak is key to everyday communication and is critical for job prospects and quality of life. However, not everyone has this ability. Some people — children, and adults alike — are deaf and need help with articulation. Other people may require assistance after a stroke or have an illness or other disability. Alternatively, you might have trouble swallowing or have stuttering issues. A speech-language pathologist is a professional who might be able to help. 

What is a speech-language pathologist? 

Speech-language pathologists work in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, residential care facilities, and individual offices. Often, they are called speech therapists. Much of what they do is connected to speech, helping patients with articulation, stuttering, fluency, rhythm and more. That said, they do assist some patients with language and swallowing, too. For example, a child who is deaf may need instruction in idioms or in typical everyday greetings, both of which fall under "language." 

Reasons to see a speech-language pathologist 

Your child might see a speech-language pathologist at school. If you are in the hospital recovering from a stroke, you might see one on-site and continue the therapy after being released. Other reasons to see a speech-language pathologist might include: 

  • To relearn language after an accident
  • To overcome a voice disorder
  • To work on speaking as clearly as possible
  • To expand your communications and cognitive strategies after an illness or accident
  • To enhance your social communication skills
  • To improve your swallowing ability

Some people, such as individuals who are deaf, may see speech-language pathologists for much of their lives. Others may see such a professional for a relatively short time. 

What does a speech-language pathologist do? 

Speech-language pathologists do not only "treat" patients. They can also diagnose conditions, and in a school setting, they work as part of a large educational team that can include students, teachers, special education teachers, occupational therapists, and parents. In a medical setting, they may work with patients, primary care physicians, specialists, nurses and various types of therapists and audiologists. 

Specialization does happen among quite a few speech-language pathologists. For example, some are dually certified as audiologists and may work primarily with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some may work with children or older adults while others focus on people who stutter. Another group might enjoy helping people who have social communication issues. 

How is a speech-language pathologist certified? 

Speech-language pathologists do not necessarily need to be certified. Those who want certification can get it through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. To verify if your speech-language pathologist is certified, you can check on the American Speech-Language-Hearing website. Enter the therapist's name and location or account number. 

To get certified, speech-language pathologists must have a master's degree from an accredited program and a practicum, among other requirements. To maintain certification, they must participate in ongoing professional development. Most speech-language pathologists must be licensed to practice in their state; if your speech-language pathologist is not certified, he or she should at least be licensed. Some School-based speech-language pathologists might also need teaching certifications. 

Many speech-language pathologists are not doctors, per se. They have not gone through medical school nor are they licensed to practice medicine unless they have done so separately from attaining their speech and language credentials. That said, some do have doctoral degrees in fields related to speech and language. 

Referral and research 

Often, you need a referral from your primary care doctor to see a speech-language pathologist, especially if you want your insurance or state health to cover the appointments. For example, a young child with cerebral palsy might be referred at age four if very few people in the child's life can understand his or her speech. 

On the other hand, if you are from another country and are seeking to change your accent, insurance would not cover that. You would not need a referral and could contact a speech-language pathologist directly. You can research and review speech-language pathologist as well as a wide range of other specialists at

Many children in school can see a speech-language pathologist in their building as part of an IEP, or individualized education program. It is a customized plan for special education students. Some students may also see different speech-language pathologists outside of school for extra help. Insurance coverage varies by plan, and many companies require prior authorization. 

The first meeting with your speech-language pathologist 

The first session your speech-language pathologist can be intimidating but remember they won't be judging you — it's their job to understand and help assist with improving your specific speech or language needs. For whatever reason, you are having some communication issues. It's important to know that not all SLPs have the same skill set. For example, some speech-language pathologists are unfamiliar with sign language. If you are deaf and use sign language as your primary method of communication, this SLP will not be a good fit for you. In any case, it can be humbling, even embarrassing, for your communication issues to be on full display in front of someone. That is why feeling comfort with a speech-language pathologist is critical. 

Consider asking questions such as: 

  • What is your experience with my particular issue?
  • What is your communication style?
  • What is your philosophy on [issue]?
  • Do you tend to assign homework?
  • How do you measure progress?

Ask specific questions that pertain to your situation. Take the case of a deaf person; he or she may want to ask if the pathologist has any experience with audiology and aural rehabilitation. Someone who has that experience can be a big bonus, as aural rehabilitation may help with improved articulation. 

Many localities offer at least a few speech-language pathologists. If you do not feel like you have found a good fit after your first appointment, it is fine to meet with a new person (or to ask your doctor for a referral to someone else). You are working on improving yourself and should not feel judged or self-conscious.