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How Speech Therapist Helps Transgender Patients Find a Voice to Match Their Identity

June 16, 2021

Speech therapy offers a way to regain your voice using techniques that help address communication disorders caused by disease, trauma or other conditions.  For transgender patients, however, this type of therapy can help regain or define their identity. Rachel Burrell, Speech Language Pathologist for Hartford HealthCare Rehabilitation Network, has been working closely with this patient population for years and knows firsthand how her work can truly make a difference in someone’s life. “This type of therapy is really gender-affirming therapy for transgender patients,” said Burrell, who treats both male-to-female and female-to-male transgender patients and nonbinary patients. “We are not just working to adjust someone’s voice. We are looking at their whole presentation and working to change the way they communicate their gender. The goal is to physically change their voice and speech patterns, which can also have a profound psychological impact as it boosts self-esteem and a sense of self.” Burrell, who is the Site Supervisor for Hartford HealthCare Rehabilitation Network’s outpatient clinic in Norwich, said her role is to not only help patients alter their voice but also to help them adjust their mannerisms and outward appearances to match their gender identity.  Following an initial assessment where Burrell works to establish what each patients needs to address in therapy -- including pitch range and frequency, phonation time, resonance, voice tension and rate of speech -- she and her patients then work through an intensive 12-session treatment plan. Each session begins with a central theme, such as intonation, and ends with the patient practicing lessons learned in previous sessions. Burrell said she stresses the importance of applying the lessons learned in therapy to real-life situations to help patients continue their journey beyond the clinical setting. “I always tell my patients how critical it is for them to apply what they have learned in therapy to their day-to-day life,” she said. “I love hearing about the steps they take to do this and how something like being referred to as ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Sir’ can be such an amazing moment for them.  These are things that most people take for granted, but can make a huge difference for someone trying to establish a gender identity.” For many, this type therapy can be an extremely arduous journey that requires a lot of hard work and perseverance, Burrell said, but the rewards can be great. “I am proud of how far this program has come and how it has been embraced here at Hartford HealthCare,” she said.  “I am also constantly inspired by the resiliency I see in the patients I treat.  It isn’t like having surgery or hormone treatment.  This is hard work that requires daily practice and a complete commitment to the process. Not everyone is able to do this, so when someone does succeed, it’s very rewarding to be a part of the journey.” For more information about Hartford HealthCare Rehabilitation Network’s Speech Therapy program, click here.