RCSLT - Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists

Anti-racism in speech and language therapy: part 1

January 05, 2022 The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists Season 4 Episode 1
RCSLT - Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists
Anti-racism in speech and language therapy: part 1
Show Notes Transcript

This is the first in a series of episodes which we will be releasing in 2022 which will look at anti-racism in the speech and language therapy profession. In this episode leaders of the network group 'SLTs of Colour' (Angela Whiteley, Heeral Davda and Dorett Davis) chat with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists' chair, Mary Heritage, about the need for anti-racism awareness in the profession and the ways this is being taken forwards.

About SLTs of Colour:
SLTs of Colour is an inclusive network supporting Speech & Language Therapists in the UK, posting SLT profiles on Instagram. Find SLTs of Colour on Twitter and Instagram:

Useful links from RCSLT:

The interview was produced by Jacques Strauss, freelance digital producer.



Transcript Name: 



Transcript Date: 

14 March 2022 


Speaker Key: 

HOST:                        JACQUES STRAUSS 

ANGELA:                    ANGELA WHITELEY

HEERAL:                    HEERAL DAVDA 

DORETT:                    DORETT DAVIS

MARY:                        MARY HERITAGE 


MUSIC PLAYS: 0:00:00-0:00:12


HOST:                         0:00:12 Welcome to a special edition of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists podcast. Today’s episode is the first in a series of podcasts in which we look at the issue of racism within the profession and within the NHS and healthcare sector more broadly. We’ll be looking at diversity within the profession and why it matters. As you may know, RCSLT is working on a number of initiatives which will be discussed in this and future episodes. 


Today’s episode is being hosted by Speech and Language Therapists of Colour, an online support platform formed in June 2020. Their aim is to promote speech and language therapy as a career for minority ethnic people, and they provide support for people who want to enter the profession. In addition to this, they work with allies in tackling racism and increasing diversity. 


Angela, Heeral, and Dorett from SLTs of Colour were joined by Mary, the RCSLT Chair to have an initial free-ranging discussion about race to kick off the series. 


The panel started by introducing themselves.


ANGELA:                    0:01:09 Hi, I’m Angela. I’m a speech and language therapist working in Lewisham, London. My job role is Mainstream School Therapist, and I am the Digital Health and Clinical Informatics Lead for our team.


HEERAL:                    0:01:23 Hi, I’m Heeral. I’m a speech and language therapist as well, and I work in London, and I recently changed my roles as clinic manager for community clinics. I’m thinking more about a strategic overview of the work that we do. 


DORETT:                    0:01:39 Hi, and I’m Dorett. I’m a speech and language therapist by profession, but my job role is in general management, managing a range of children’s community services, but also include children’s therapies. 


MARY:                        0:01:53 I’m Mary Heritage. I’m currently Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. I’ve recently moved jobs from being an Allied Health Professions Lead in Derbyshire to working at the University of Lincoln, where I’m developing a programme in speech and language therapy.


HEERAL:                    0:02:16 Mary, what I want to know is, why do you think it took so long to start these conversations around anti-racism in speech and language therapy?


MARY:                        0:02:25 Thank you. It’s a really good question, and I’ve been reflecting on that. I think as Board of Trustees we’d known for a long time. We’d acknowledged that we are a predominantly white female profession, and that that isn’t the way we would want it to be, and there was a vision of a much more diverse profession, and I think that had been on our radar for a very long time. 


So, we had been focusing on diversity in the profession, and not necessarily on the experience of our members, and their experiences of racism within the profession. I think that came as a very horrible surprise to a lot of us when it was so clearly articulated in 2020. 


I think we had had a blind spot to that part of the issue. But our focus had been on, we want to have a more diverse profession, and how do we work towards that. 


HEERAL:                    0:03:28 I’m just thinking, from our point of view, Dorett, Angie, why do you think [it might have taken so long 0:03:33]?


DORETT:                    0:03:35 I think there have been forays into discussions about the lack of diversity in the profession over many, many years. I remember at the height of the anti-apartheid movement there was some discussion in college – it’s been a long time! – around that, and then it’s all died down. 


I think we probably find the world is in a unique place in 2020. COVID, we were locked down, and there was a lot that was going on, and I think there was a lot of reflection that what happened in America and the fact that we have social media, so it literally goes like wildfire. It really was very much in people’s faces. 


But as a black person, for us, it was terrible and shocking to see what was happening over there. But it’s something that it’s a reality that you see. And also, I think, [people are looking very much into America 0:04:42], but we know that black people have died in this country having had interactions with the police, yet it hasn’t really generated this groundswell of we want to do something. 


But the positive is that, actually, it was a moment in time, and people wanted to do something. I think that’s very much, Angie, what spurred you to create the platform. What would you say, Angie? 


ANGELA:                    0:05:07 Yes, very much so. It is trying to find something positive out of it. And there are two folds, there were two parts of it. One was bringing attention to the therapists of colour that was already out there, but the other side of that was to provide support for those therapists who are struggling in the workplace, because they may be being the only person of colour there, or those students who are struggling in their placements. 


Actually, the social media storm, that got me so emotional and upset to create SLTs of Colour is actually the same method [venue/menu 0:05:50] that I use to attract and to provide support for our therapists and our students. So, it has been really good to hear from those students and to hear from other therapists to say that they didn’t realise that there were so many therapists of colour out there, they had no idea that others were going through the same things that they were going through. 


We all thought that… [in fact, even us within this room 0:06:14] all thought that our experience was actually the only experience and it was just us. And so it has been really positive to hear from other people. It’s been positive to know that we’ve been able to link up other therapists, and it’s been positive to know that we’ve been able to draw much more attention to speech and language therapy as a career and making waves, I guess, in that way to start to bring more attention to it for students who are 15, 16 maybe in secondary schools and starting to spend more time [inaudible 0:06:50]. 


DORETT:                    0:06:49 But I would also say, Mary, your point about the board being surprised by experiences, but aware of lack of diversity, I think what the platform has done is to – for the therapist in the profession – perhaps themselves think, how come I’m in perhaps quite an urban area, yet when I look at it, I’ve only got one or two colleagues who aren’t white. How does that [play back 0:07:18]? That’s quite an anomaly. 


So, I think in a way, the platform also offers that for people to start to perhaps reflect on their own teams and lack of diversity, and how that may get played out when it comes around to recruitment. To what degree are people recruiting the image of themselves, as opposed to perhaps recruiting for the workforce, and for the local community? 


I think in many ways the platform also hopefully sparks those conversations amongst our white colleagues.


MARY:                        0:07:56 Yeah, I think the events that have happened from George Floyd’s murder, and the echoes or ripples that happened across society and across the Atlantic and into the UK, and into our living rooms and into our staff rooms are around people of colour experience racism, is that still happening? Does that happen to my colleagues? What, that happens within my profession? Really? 


And the conversation has started to happen, and some of the events that we’ve been able to have within the profession over the last 12 months have enabled those conversations to happen in a safe space where people can listen, and people can also talk freely in a safe space.


ANGELA:                    0:08:44 I think that that’s really important, Mary, about that conversation. I think at the very beginning we said, having conversations around race are uncomfortable, they are very uncomfortable, but actually it’s uncomfortable being on the other side of it, and there’s no other way to get around that apart from talking about it. 


It is important to be open and to be honest, and to be ready to be uncomfortable.


MUSIC PLAYS 0:09:15-0:09:21


DORETT:                    0:09:21 [It’s reflected 0:09:21] very much in the NHS that the higher you climb, the whiter it becomes. So, the snowy peaks are a metaphor that at the very top you won’t find many people of colour. And there is often quoted piece of work whereby two nurses start out at band 5, and one is black, one is white; equal qualifications, same grade, start on the same wards. You project 10 or 12 years ahead, your white counterpart is more likely to be up in the management ranks. Your white counterpart is more likely to become a director of nursing than yourself as a black person. 


It is that thing that you find diversity in the lower bands, but the more you climb the less diversity there is.


MARY:                        0:10:20 Can I turn the question back? What have you experienced of being speech and language therapists of colour within a predominantly white profession?


DORETT:                    0:10:33 I can share when I wanted to become a speech and language therapist, I can remember saying to my college lecturer… so we were filling in our application forms to go to university, and she asked me what I wanted to do. And I said I wanted to be what was called a speech therapist back then. And she said to me, you have to speak good English to do that. Bearing in mind, I was in her A Level English class, producing essays and getting good grades. I was somewhat taken aback by that comment, to which I said to her, I do think I speak pretty good English. I’m in your class [inaudible 0:11:12] understanding me. [Inaudible 0:11:17]. 


HEERAL:                    0:11:21 I would say I had an experience, [very 0:11:24] newly qualified speech and language therapist, doing my first clinic in my first week, and I had a parent come along for a session. It was the first time they were meeting me, and they said to me, are you going to be our speech and language therapist? Yes, I’m your speech and language therapist. And they pulled a face. 


For me, I interpreted that as, you can’t be my speech and language therapist. And it was very hard experience because before I even had that opportunity to show my passion for speech and language therapy, or the effort that I have put in to ensure that that child reached the outcomes that I wanted them to reach by the end of their block of therapy, I already felt that judgement that I couldn’t do it. 


That then actually made me feel very insecure at every session, feeling I had to work so much harder, gather all the evidence and say, I’m doing this because this is the evidence base. [Then I was prompted to 0:12:29] thinking, I wonder how many of my other colleagues who started at the same time have to prove themselves in the same way. So, the anxiety level was through the roof, and I very quickly felt like, yeah, I’ll really have to convince this parent that I can do it.


ANGELA:                    0:12:49 I’m thinking of a time when I first tried out at speech and language therapy. I did a year at a university [that I won’t name 0:12:58]. One of the lecturers there – I won’t tell you what that person taught as well – I went to them for help with that subject, and I was asked: where are you from? And I said, I’m from Lewisham. And she’s like, no, no, no, I mean, where are your parents from? And so I said, they’re from Jamaica. And then she said to me that I shouldn’t have been offered the postgrad course that I was on, I should have been offered a course that was longer. And the reason why I wasn’t offered that was because I would have said, oh, it’s because I’m black, that’s why you’re offering me that course. And I said to her, I’ve never used that word in my entire life! 


[Dorett 0:13:50] was my manager at the time, and I was on the phone to her as soon as I came out of university. Yeah. That completely ruined that. This person was quite influential in there, and so every single time I met with her, every lecture we went, every time I got a report back from her I felt like it was being judged purely because I was who I was. 


And yeah, I did mention it to another person at university, who said that I should put in a complaint, but because this person was on the board, then… and I felt like it wasn’t it... I couldn’t have done that.


DORETT:                    0:14:32 I moved into management quite quickly, so I was very used to going into a room where I would be the only black face leading a profession. Even when I would go to events, you become a bit of an object of curiosity, and colleagues look at you. It takes one colleague to approach you. If you engage with them, then the others would come and speak to you. 


So, I think what I’m trying to share here is that, we talked about our experiences, I talked about getting into the profession; also you have, Angie and Heeral. But the discrimination is there, even when you climb up the leadership ladder. And I think that’s really important [inaudible 0:15:15] the belief that if you climb up somehow [that wipes it out 0:15:23]. It’s still there. And, in fact, sometimes when you say you manage services it’s, pardon? You manage a service? [Where’s the real person? 0:15:29] 


It’s there, whether you are basic grade, all the way up to management.


MARY:                        0:15:38 And those accounts, your experiences, are absolutely shocking, and yet, sadly, not surprising. And I guess that the other of any other speech and language therapist who’s of colour will have similar stories, sadly.


I wonder how easy it is for you to share those experiences and how much you step on them and move upwards and put them behind you, and how easy it is for you to share those with people like me that haven’t experienced that racism at work.


HEERAL:                    0:16:10 I think the hard part I find is then… For example, I just told you a story, and I have said I perceived that. And what I think is hard is if then the comeback is I think you might have perceived that wrong. And it’s almost discrediting the feeling, or how it… the sense I got from it must have been inaccurate. And that, I think, is harder. 


So, I feel like you have to be really… you are vulnerable when you’re sharing a story. Sometimes it’s harder than others, depending on what you’re sharing. But then to have it picked apart as if...


ANGELA:                    0:16:52 Diminished. 


HEERAL:                    0:16:52 Yes, exactly. The experience wasn’t as you recall it. I think that, then, is really hard. And then, I feel like when you’re starting to justify your experience, then it leaves me feeling like I’d rather not share, actually. 


What I think has been so positive from the platform is actually there seems to be this critical mass forming from sharing stories, where actually, we can see that change is coming, and some change has started. And I think that then makes me feel like, no, it is good to share. But not easy.


MARY:                        0:17:29 Can I return to that example around a patient, because I know that colleagues find it really difficult to know as a professional when it’s appropriate to challenge a patient and when it isn’t. What have you experienced or learned there that you could share?


HEERAL:                    0:17:45 I would say for the experience I had, I was very nervous. It was my first job and I did not want to be making a fuss, and I didn’t want to stand out, and I kind of just wanted it all to disappear. 


So, I didn’t challenge the parent. I didn’t really talk about it immediately with my supervisor or my manager. I just sort of dealt with it on my own. 


Looking back at that now, I wish I had reached out because I then probably would have been linked to other people who’ve been through that experience who could have supported me through it. 


But I think there is something about putting up and just trying to not rock any boats, or look like the person who’s going to cause any trouble.


DORETT:                    0:18:43 I think perhaps there’s something about will you be believed. And especially when you’re taking that concern to a white person. People are perhaps a little bit more receptive now to listen. But I would say we’re still a long, long way to go. So, you’re talking a couple of years ago now, to be going back and saying this to a white manager, who potentially has a very different lived experience, who perhaps has never discussed the R word – race. It’s a big ask. 


A lot of – and I use the word ‘us’ because I think it’s the right thing to say ‘us’ – will have had experiences that we take home, go elsewhere to work through rather than to bring it to the attention… although I’m hoping now that this work is happening, that people may well start to feel braver. But is still being very, very brave because you have to feel that you’ll be listened to and trusted – that someone’s not going to say, that mother didn’t mean it; why would you think that? 


The NHS is doing a lot of work around [inaudible 0:20:04] zero tolerance. In hospitals where a patient will say, I don’t want that doctor because they’re South Asian, or that doctor because they’re black. [And they’re saying 0:20:15], actually, that’s the only doctor you can have. 


And so I think in terms of a response, it’s about your manager saying, Dorett is the most appropriate therapist to work with your child [inaudible 0:20:28] [your reasoning is on the basis I can see no other 0:20:29] reason why you wouldn’t want to work with her. And maybe actually calling it out: is it because Dorett’s black? 


But if we turn it on its head, there are times when a black parent walked into the clinic and saw me, and there was a look that said, first, surprise, because they’re not used to seeing black therapists, and sometimes a relief. Here is somebody who might just actually understand my world. So, there is the flip side of what we bring with our diversity into the profession. And so we can have our stories and woes, but there are also stories of celebration of the fact that we come from a similar ethnicity, have shared experiences. That’s sometimes being the difference between a safeguarding case where you can explain, actually, this is this is what it’s like for people from this culture. But when we say this, it doesn’t mean as dire as you think, it means something else for us. So, there are some real benefits by diversifying the profession for actual patients.


MUSIC PLAYS 0:21:47-0:21:53 


ANGELA:                    0:21:53 I was just going to ask Mary, because the college did the anti-racism event this year, and I guess I’m asking: what’s next? What did you get from that, and what’s the plan?


MARY:                        0:22:08 The events that we ran last May were really successful in terms of a lot of people accessed them, and the richness of discussion and insights gained was significant. However, the several hundred members who did engage with those are still only a very tiny proportion of the 19,000 members that the RCSLT has. So, the anti-racism reference group continues to explore how we can mainstream that level of learning, how it’s built into HEI curricula for future speech and language therapy workforce, and how individual services can engage with the resources and the materials and make anti-racism awareness, anti-racism work, part of essential CPD for every speech and language therapist. 


So, that work does continue, and it continues to have a focus and we work with a range of and a growing number of members who are really motivated by that. And it’s not an easy one, because RCSLT isn’t an employer of speech and language therapists and we don’t have a direct influence over the NHS or other employers. 


But we are pioneering in this work, and other professional bodies are very interested in what we’ve been doing and learning from our experience. So, there’s an influencing role that we have. 


I throw that back to you: what else would you expect to see us doing?


DORETT:                    0:23:53 I think the event was a really good starting point, and as you said it’s a very small number of… I couldn’t do the maths to do the percentages quickly enough, but a very small number who came forward and had the experience. 


And I guess there is, for those members who work in the NHS, the NHS has a responsibility around equality and diversity and inclusion, so some of that is about how members are directed to hook into their own networks that are in their organisations. 


For example, you might find you’ve been part of the college event and you’re quite passionate about it, but you take that back to your team who are perhaps less so. So, how can I, as one voice…? And it doesn’t matter where you are in the hierarchy because you could be a manager who’s very passionate [inaudible 0:24:49] not for me, or what difference does it make. Especially I think if you are potentially working in an area that’s predominantly white so you don’t see… your population isn’t that diverse, so why would I be having these conversations? 


So, I think it is about how members are also encouraged to hook into what’s happening in their organisation, can they draw on that to bring into their workplace and into their interactions with their clients.


HEERAL:                    0:25:25 And I would just add that you mentioned the word ‘influential’, and that College is influential. I think that that’s really important. It goes back to some of what we were saying earlier about perhaps when we’re talking about this we’re not being believed, or I feel like it can sound like it’s just the one voice. But actually, when it’s coming from the College it’s so powerful. So, I think that there is an important role that the College has in continuing this conversation and continuing this work, even when all the peak of interest dies down, which my personal feeling is that it will. I think we’re at a peak point, and I think that this is perhaps a lot more engagement than we might see in the future. 


But I would want to see the conversations continuing, and that there are clear plans and objectives that are shared. 


I’d like to see something measurable – because that’s what we’re taught to do therapy! – so that we can come back and say, okay, this is what we wanted, this is where we’re at, what else is there to do so we can get there? 


And I don’t have all the answers. I’m not [inaudible 0:26:39]. I know the plan, here’s what we need to do. I don’t. I know my experience and what I’d like to see change. But I think that RCSLT is an influential body, and I would want them to be using their influence to influence therapists within the profession who have not yet got on board.


MARY:                        0:26:58 Yeah, you make that point so well. We have had a real focus, and it could be a short-term focus and we tick that box and move on. We cannot do that. 


For reassurance to yourselves and to all of our members, we’re just embarking on – for the first time ever – a five-year strategic direction. We’ve never looked that far before. We’ve looked at annual plans. We’ve looked at three-year plans. COVID has taught us we’ve no idea what’s around the corner. But we can think a long way down the line where would we want RCSLT to be in five years’ time. 


And that document is about to come out. You will find that equality, diversity, and inclusion are threaded all the way through that document. That is what develops the annual plans that RCSRT will be held to account for by its members each year. 


Not only as equality, diversity, and inclusion all the way through there, but specifically anti-racism as a specific issue is inscribed in tablets of stone for the next five years as a priority for the professional body. And that is the legacy of the very focused period of activism and mobilisation that happened in 2020 and 21, that now our Chief Executive, our senior management team, our Board of Trustees, are entrusted with that mandate to continue this work on equality, diversity, and inclusion generally, and specifically, anti-racism. 


DORETT:                    0:28:41 It’s really pleasing to hear that anti-racism is embedded throughout the work, because it’s very easy for it to be seen as an adjunct. But I think it runs through everything we do. So, then we look at a clinical pathway that’s been designed to develop the evidence base; we must always be asking ourselves those questions about who’s involved, where has this originated, how does this impact on the diverse populations, our minority ethnic clients? So, I’m really heartened to hear that it’s a strand, that in the same way we think safeguarding is everyone’s business I think it’s really pleasing that that’s just in everything we do. It’s not something that’s a separate siloed issue, which I think perhaps in the past, it might have been viewed as a siloed issue.


ANGELA:                    0:29:36 I’m pleased that there is now this conversation. I’m pleased that there is recognition, and I’m pleased that there will be… or there’s a strategy, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.


HEERAL:                    0:29:59 I would say I echo a lot of what you’ve both said, Dorett and Angie, in that I’m pleased that equality, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism is all embedded all the way through and it’s not a separate add-on afterthought. I think it’s looking at the how do we individually and as a board, as service, how do we stay accountable? I think, for me, that is much harder. I think it’s easy to talk. I think it’s easy to put it on paper. How do we all keep accountable? Because if we don’t, patient care is at risk. Therapists in the workplace are not having a great experience, students are not having a great experience. 


There’s been a lot of, I think, learning, a lots of research, bits of work done. But actually, we know that now, so it’s about the accountability moving forward, I think.


MARY:                        0:31:04 Yeah, and the accountability does sit with all of us, because no small group of people can tackle this on their own. But the accountability now RCSLT has sat up and heard. We’ve acknowledged those blind spots. Accountability sits with the Board of Trustees, and we’ll talk in a future podcast about how we make sure that Board of Trustees is more representative of the members and more diverse for better thinking, better collective thing.


                                    MUSIC PLAYS: 0:31:34-0:31:38


HOST:                         0:31:38 A very big thank you to Angela, Heeral, and Dorret from SLTs of Colour for hosting this podcast, and to Mary for sharing some perspectives from RCSLT. 


As always, useful links are in the show notes, and look out for more episodes on this topic in spring of this year. 


Until next time, keep safe. 


MUSIC PLAYS: 0:31:54-0:32:06