Clinic facilities

DePaul’s Speech-Language Clinic makes gender-affirming care accessible

DePaul’s new speech therapy clinic makes gender-affirming care accessible to the community.

Voice is an important part of identity for many people. For transgender people, voice can contribute to feelings of gender dysphoria.

“Your voice is such an auditory representation of you that hearing it and knowing it doesn’t match you is a very intense feeling,” said Jane Koppitz, vice president of Spectrum, DePaul’s LGBTQ+ student organization.

DePaul’s Speech Therapy Clinic, located in DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus Visitor Center, is trying to help.

The clinic provides hands-on experience for students graduating from DePaul’s Master’s in Speech-Language Pathology program and provides services for a wide variety of communication, voice, and swallowing disorders.

The voice is incredibly underrated as an aspect of gender-affirming processing, Koppitz said.

“Many trans people, like me, consider vocal dysphoria to be one of the [the biggest]if not the biggest, the hurdles to overcome,” she said.

There are many ways for transgender and gender non-conforming people to make their presentation conform to their gender, such as hormone therapy, gender-affirming surgeries, or just clothing and makeup.

“But when it comes to vocal dysphoria,” Koppitz said, “there’s not half the resources there.”

He administered voice therapy sessions to his very first clients just a few weeks ago.

The clinic’s gender-affirming voice therapy services make an important, often hard-to-find resource more accessible.

Gender-affirming voice therapy helps transgender and gender-nonconforming people “align the sound of their voice with their gender identity,” said Ann Fennell, director of clinical training for the speech-language pathology program.

Fennell supervises graduate students who administer therapy at the clinic. She specializes in voice disorders and has worked in gender affirming voice therapy for over 20 years.

“We ask people who come in what their goals are for their voice,” Fennell said. “We’re not assuming anyone wants a super-female-sounding voice or a super-male-sounding voice, but what do they want to do with their voice that will help them with that alignment.”

Under Fennell’s supervision, graduate students coach clients on how to use their voice to make changes to the way it sounds little by little.

“To improve that perception of a more feminine voice, we’re going to add a higher pitch, a higher intonation pattern, and make sure the voice is very direct and resonant,” Fennell said.

This means making your voice more direct and using an almost singsong way of speaking, raising the pitch on certain words and slipping towards the end of a sentence.

“For trans men, we kind of do the opposite,” she said. They flatten the intonation to a more monotone and lower the pitch.

Clients are given exercises to practice on their own and, depending on different factors, typically complete their voice therapy sessions after six to ten weeks. Fennell said the clinic is also looking to expand treatment options to group therapy sessions.

Many trans people help each other change their voices, but most people can’t find or are unaware of professional voice therapy services, Koppitz said. It’s also just more difficult to change your voice compared to other aspects of genre presentation. While testosterone hormone therapy causes a change in voice pitch, estrogen does not.

Also, health insurance doesn’t always cover gender-affirming care, and if it does, it may require an official diagnosis of gender dysphoria. And even with a diagnosis that can be difficult and expensive to obtain, insurance may not cover voice therapy.

DePaul’s Speech Therapy Clinic is entirely donation-based, which means there are no financial barriers to getting treatment, and clients can easily enroll regardless of the diagnostic.

“The great thing about our donation-based clinic is that it makes our services accessible to everyone,” Fennell said.

Koppitz said she knows several people who have already signed up for the service and are thrilled.

Hannah Senanayaka, president of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association at DePaul, works at the clinic’s front desk. She said students and faculty are equally thrilled to provide this care.

“See [the clinic] to come to fruition and finally be able to start treating our customers is really special,” she said. “We fill a need in the community for all kinds of therapy services.

Most of the clinic’s clients come from referrals from other treatment centers, Senanayaka said, but the NSSLHA posts information about the clinic’s services, including gender-affirming voice therapy, on its Instagram to help better promote these valuable resources.

“I think there’s this collective community of care at DePaul where students want to share resources, so by posting it on our student page, we knew it would spread,” she said. “We really want everyone in DePaul and the outside community to know about these programs.”

To register for voice therapy services at the clinic, complete a new customer form at the clinic site.