Ever wanted to know what it’s like to be an SLP and work around the world?
Whether you’re still studying or newly graduated and have the travel bug, been in the profession for a while and looking for a big change or just happy to live through the SLP eyes of someone else, I’ve asked some fellow adventurers about their experiences….first stop is Jennie in Japan.
Share your SLP journey. How did you get to where you are?
I’m still quite a newbie in the world of speech and language pathology, qualifying in 2014 from City University London. I’d just got married and had about 18 months to practice in UK before joining my husband out in Japan.
I was fortunate to get a job with a lovely private practice in London, working in schools across age groups. When I moved to Tokyo in March this year, I initially worked as an English teacher as I tried to make relationships with therapists and schools here. Tokyo has an association for foreign SLPs as we’re not able to be a member of the Japanese association for SLPs or work within the national health system. Our association sets the fees for assessments and therapy with most clients being from the international community and therapy paid for by parents or insurers. Most therapists work part-time in this way, with a couple directly employed by schools.
Luckily for me, a small international school was opening an autism unit for Grade 1 students this academic year and took me on their team. I now work four days a week at the school and mainly in the autism unit with our teacher, occupational therapist and assistants. I’d trained in SCERTS and Attention Autism before coming out which has given me confidence it how to build our curriculum and therapy. We are still such a new program and unique to the international school community, so there are a lot of challenges as we work out how to best support our students and their families. We hope in the future to open our program to more children as well as offer integrated speech, language and occupational therapy services to local and international community.
What was the biggest SLP related surprise that you encountered while overseas?
How resourceful you need to be! It’s hard to get access to a lot of assessments, interventions and even toys you’re familiar with. You really need to be able to hone in your informal assessment skills. With therapy, in some ways it can be beneficial to have less resources. I think we can all be guilty sometimes of building goals around materials we have. I ask myself much more What do I really want this child to be able to do? What do they already have in their environment that can support them to achieve this? It definitely makes you reconsider your approach.
We know you’ve had one…Share the funniest language barrier moment:
On my first date with now husband I couldn’t speak Japanese and his English was pretty limited, so there was a lot of gesturing to get through it. For years I’ve been retelling this dramatic story that he told me then. He was riding alone through the mountains of Hokkaido on his Honda Shadow motorbike, taking in the views when suddenly, he was knocked off his bike and rammed by a stag. He had to climb back on his bike and sped away to the nearest hospital. I finally retold it once in front of him, using all the same gestures when he stopped me and said “Jennie, that’s not what happened at all. I saw a beautiful deer then a horrible bee came and stung me. I sped away because I’m scared of bees.” So that’s the end of that as a conversation starter.
Do you have any favourite sites or recommendations for SLP’s who want to work abroad?
Get experience before moving abroad!
Had I the chance, I would have worked at least two years before embarking on this adventure. There is often a limited number of clients and therapists so you really need to be prepared to work with all kinds of speech, language and communication difficulties. The more experience of different therapies and models of working the better. I think I was also surprised to find that Oh, I’m my own supervisor! There’s a lot of budgeting, planning, self-study and advocating to do when you’re working independently in a country where they may not be familiar with the service provision.
Get in touch, stay in touch
As Rebecca’s recommended, it’s important to get in contact with therapists where you’d like to work. Keep in mind this can take a few months! I think it’s also good to get in touch with any professionals working in healthcare internationally. I joined CTI and attended their workshops as well as seminars at Leonard Chesire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre in UK. I’d also say it’s really important to stay in contact with therapists from your own country. The roles and approaches of an SLP can vary a lot across countries so it’s nice having the chance to talk to someone who understands it as you do.
Test the waters
Wherever possible I’d really recommend visiting the country before you commit to working there. There’s only so much information you can gain through emails and the internet. Visiting will give you an insight into the community and working environment, the services and resources they already have and how you can contribute to them best in time and skills. This will help manage their expectations and your own before you finally take the plunge.
What are some real SLP issues in your country that we don’t know about?
I’m still new to working here, so you should take what I say with that caveat in mind. I think what’s most noticeable in the international and local community is just how few provisions there are for children with speech, language and communication needs. In some ways this reflects a limited understanding of what these needs are. Furthermore, schools can be reluctant to take on a child with a diagnosis as they don’t have the learning support available or they have academic standards that the children won’t be able to meet. Most schools have entrance exams from middle school onwards which is a lot of pressure, even for the most able students.
It’s also difficult for families to access support from professionals. Within the Japanese community, SLP training focuses more on the adult population so there are limited opportunities for early intervention. In the international community, parents or their insurers pay which can be very costly. I also worry that parents and children may feel isolated as the therapy we are mainly able to offer is 1:1, at home or in a spare classroom. It would be great to offer a more holistic service, which we are aiming for at our school.
If you work overseas as an SLP and have a story to tell, please get in touch and contact me.
Jennie O’Grady is a Speech and Language Therapist from the UK currently working in Tokyo. Before qualifying she worked across South and Central America as an English teacher and also as a teaching assistant to children with complex needs. Her interests are ASD, parent-child interaction and whole school approaches to supporting students with speech, language and communication needs. In her free time, she loves exploring Tokyo, one coffee shop at a time, and visiting the beautiful beaches of Japan.
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