Intermediary Journeys: Tegan’s Story

I remember reading the job advert for the role at Communicourt on the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapist’s website on their job bulletin board. It felt like something just ‘clicked’, like I had found it. It was a role that involved working with people (tick), in any major city (tick), getting to travel around the UK (tick), and being a part of the fascinating courtroom environment (major tick). At that time, I was in a job I didn’t really enjoy, newly graduated, living with my parents and missing the independence of the life I had had pre-pandemic.

The long and winding road…

My path to this post was by no means linear, and although I’ve previously felt embarrassed about this, I now see that a story with twists and turns tends to be much more exciting. I first heard about speech and language therapy when I was doing my A levels. I loved the concept of the career. At this time, I was studying both German and Biology and I felt that speech therapy combined my love of science and languages perfectly.

The indecisive part of my personality got the better of me though, and I decided to keep my options open, doing a broader degree in the knowledge that I could do a speech therapy masters later on, if I fancied it. As a result, I embarked on a very fun four years at Cardiff University during which, I spent time abroad in Germany, Munich and Heidelberg.

Living in a language bubble

Learning a language will humble you. As native English speakers, many of us can waltz through life – visiting exotic destinations, sure in the knowledge that if we should shout ‘help’, someone will understand us. Being in another country and trying to speak their language tested me in so many ways, but most of all, it allowed me to appreciate how it feels to be on the outside of the bubble, looking in.

Photo by Pieter on Unsplash

I distinctly remember one very confused look I got from a professor during class I was taking, as I struggled to string together a coherent sentence that explained my point. It was clear I had not succeeded. As time went on and my linguistic abilities in German grew, I felt more confident in expressing myself and understanding what people were saying to me. I was finally inside the bubble!

Until that moment, however, I had felt a sense of loneliness. I felt nervous about the simplest things like asking for a bag with my shopping or buying a ticket on the bus. It’s these experiences that remind me of how important our role is. We are there to break down the (often convoluted and complex) language of the courtroom to ensure that our service users are inside the ‘bubble’ too.

Working with communication difficulties

When I left university, I started to think about speech therapy again and so decided to work in a school with autistic students, as well as students with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). We had a variety of pupils with different needs, from children who only communicated using PECS boards (symbol boards) to children that could tell you all about their weekend but really struggled to play and socially interact with their peers.

I worked closely with the speech therapists in the school, participating in their therapy sessions and implementing the programmes for the children. It was through this experience that I learned the importance of your tone of voice as well as your body language. Non-verbal communication was almost as important in deescalating situations and communicating effectively as the words I used.

As a result of my experience at the school, I felt I had a skillset that would transfer well to assisting people in the courtroom with their understanding and expression.

Communication and legal proceedings

Whether it’s plot lines in your favourite movie e.g., Romeo not getting the message from Juliet that she wasn’t really dead, or resolving family squabbles, I find that communication is the culprit time after time.

A colourful mosaic showing two people talking with flowers and a ctyscape
Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

Mix-ups and miscommunications can cause a whole host of issues not least of all when it comes to understanding the law. The courtroom is where we, as practitioners, most often see the potential for breakdowns in communication, then we swoop in with something like a visual aid to save the day! Whether it’s breaking down what a Special Guardianship Order actually entails or what the judge means when they talk about ‘the Lucas direction’, our role is centred around effective expressive and receptive language skills, in a setting where the potential for confusion is great.

This is what drives me each day as an Intermediary. This thing we call ‘language’ is taken for granted so often. When communication comes easily to us, without much consideration, we can sail through interactions without a second thought to how it might be for someone who is struggling to understand or express themselves.

Making a difference

It has been incredible to see the difference our role makes to the lives of our service users first hand. I have walked away countless times thinking, if they hadn’t had an intermediary, that would have been really difficult for them. A particular experience stands out to me. This is something my mind drags up whenever I’m having a low confidence day:

I met Amy* in Birmingham with her solicitor, who needed to get her statement ready and written by the end of the day. Amy was very shy on first meeting and had learning difficulties. At lightening speed, her barrister explained what he wanted to get it done in the meeting, then asked the dreaded question – “Do you understand?”. Amy nodded her head. I was not convinced.

I asked her what the plan was for the day, and she turned to me and shook her head, “I don’t know”. I broke each point down and used gestures to assist her understanding. When I asked her again what the plan was, she was able to explain it in her own words.

We all took some deep breaths and, devising a visual timeline, we broke down what had happened over the past 15 years. Like many of our service users, Amy had been through a great deal. Walking back towards the train station, I thought about how differently the meeting might have gone if there was no one to draw visual aids to assist her understanding, if no one had asked the barrister to take it a bit slower, if no one had explained the many meanings of ‘financial abuse’ in simple terms.

I’m proud that this role allows us to uphold the human rights of an individual in our society. The court system is an overwhelming and confusing labyrinth, even for degree-educated people. To ask someone with additional needs to do this without support doesn’t seem just. Being an intermediary means making sure that the playing field is levelled (great figurative language there!) and that everyone in the courtroom feels as though they’re inside that imaginary bubble.

*Names, details and locations have been changed to protect confidentiality