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New exhibition explores eight centuries of communication disabilities

27 August 2019 – A remedy of garlic and lard applied to the feet was once thought of as a cure for hoarseness, while a king of Ulster was better known as ‘Cúscraid the stammerer’.   A new exhibition and public seminar by The Department of Clinical Speech and Language Studies will look back at communication difficulties throughout the ages, marking the Department’s 50th anniversary.

The oldest established center of its kind in Ireland, this year Trinity’s Department of Clinical Speech and Language Studies celebrates its 50th anniversary. Set up by Sr Marie De Monfort as the Dublin school of speech therapy, it now boasts a four year undergraduate programme, taught masters, research masters, and PhDs in a variety of specialist areas, including dysphagia (swallowing difficulties) and aphasia (the communication disability that happens following stroke).

On Speaking Terms

‘On Speaking Terms: Eight Centuries of Communication Disabilities’ is an interdisciplinary project funded by the Trinity Long Room Hub Research Incentive Scheme and the TCD-Wellcome Trust ISSF in Neurohumanities. Leading the project is Dr Caroline Jagoe who is an assistant professor in Speech and Language Pathology. She is joined by Dr Deborah Thorpe, who is a medievalist with an interest in the history of medicine, and Margaret Leahy, a retired senior lecturer in Speech & Language Pathology. Together they have spent almost a year trawling through the Library of Trinity College manuscripts, looking for clues of communication disabilities and references hidden across texts.

Communication disability throughout history

As speech and language therapy is a young profession, Dr Jagoe is interested in what was understood and said about communication disorders at a time when the profession didn’t yet exist. ‘If communication is part of our humanness as social beings then communication disability is as old as humanity’, said Dr Jagoe who before last year had never seen a manuscript or early printed book. Using a range of language skills, including Dr Thorpe’s Middle English skills, they were able to track down a huge amount of information on how communication difficulties were perceived and dealt with through the centuries.

One such example is that of Cúscraid Mend Macha, a story from the Book of Leinster, who is rumoured to have acquired his stammer in varying accounts, either by someone having cut off his tongue or by piercing the tendons in his throat. What is interesting about his story, Dr Jagoe explains, is that his communication disability is not portrayed negatively as society may do today, it’s simply considered to be part of his identity, alongside that as king.

18th century texts include detailed case reports on patients, similar to medical reports that might be written today, Dr Jagoe reports.

The link between mental health and communication disability is also explored in the exhibition with descriptions of the brutal fallout from battles and how speech difficulties resulted from injuries, but also mental distress.

Challenges today

One of the research strengths within the department is in mental health and communication disabilities, with a new project in partnership with the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) in Dundrum. ‘We’re looking at what needs there might be in terms of people who have communication difficulties that are part of their mental health difficulty’. Dr Jagoe says that communication difficulties can be exacerbated from being isolated for such a long time with fewer opportunities to communicate or participate in the community.

Other areas dealt with by speech and language therapists include learning disabilities, developmental delays, and autism, but also increasingly transgender clients who are transitioning and need to change how they sound in order to complete their transition to their chosen gender.

Dr Jagoe explains that as a department that’s clinically focused, there has been some ‘bemusement and intrigue’ about the project. The public seminar which will take place in the Trinity Long Room Hub in the 6th of September and will officially launch the exhibition, will explore the value of this type of inter-disciplinary engagement across health sciences and the humanities.  Professor Emeritus Matt Lehtihalmes, a speech and language therapist, will highlight the importance and relevance of historical perspectives for speech and language therapy, while medievalist Wendy Turner will explore the medieval concepts of the brain.

Dr Jagoe concludes that looking back at the evidence from centuries past can also help us to challenge our perceptions of our own models of understanding and reflect on how they will also change over time.

Overall, Dr Jagoe argues that communication difficulties, while varying in nature and type, can exclude people from participating and have a big impact on how people see themselves and how other people assign identities to them. ‘Communication is a basic human right and we all have the right to be able to communicate and receive information in a way that we can understand.’

The exhibition in the Long Room opens to the public on 30th August 2019. An online exhibition is available through the library website

A seminar to celebrate the launch of the exhibition will take place on Friday 6th September. This event is free, but registration is required. Register here.

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