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Clarion Mendes

A Few Minutes With Clarion Mendes

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara speaks with clinical assistant professor Clarion Mendes about her speech pathology work and work with helping transgender individuals find their voice.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today, I spend a few minutes with Clarion Mendes of the Speech and Hearing Science Department to talk about speech pathology, alternative communication, and helping transgender individuals find their voice.

Clarion, thanks for meeting with me today. I really appreciate it. I wanted to ask you-- I commonly ask this question-- did you always want to teach?

CLARION MENDES: So no. And I think that's one thing that's really fascinating and exciting about the fields of audiology and speech language pathology. When I went into graduate school, I initially started graduate school in a different field, and then I transitioned into speech and hearing science.

And what's phenomenal about it is, if you approach the fields of audiology and speech pathology with an open mind, with a curious mind, you'll never know what you might discover as far as what your strengths are. So if you had asked me 10 years ago when I graduated, would I end up teaching at a large research university, I'd probably say no way. But it's been a really fantastic journey.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, so speaking about your research, what led you to do what you do? Was there something-- some inspiration in your life that made you decide on this kind of field?

CLARION MENDES: So I have always been fascinated by the prospect of language. And as I was studying the fields of linguistics and psychology, I realized that I had a deep fascination with the idea of what can happen when a system that was previously entirely intact has had some degradation from some sort of neurological event or some other situation. And so I switched in to speech and hearing science and became a speech language pathologist.

And I started out working with the geriatric population in skilled nursing facilities as well as acute care. So that's kind of how I fell into this field. Yeah.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, interesting. Well, I know the geriatric population is your favorite population of people to work with, and I wonder, why?

CLARION MENDES: I think the geriatric population has the best stories. So when you have lived that long of a life-- and it's also my grandmother's 89th birthday today--

VINCE LARA: Oh, wow.

CLARION MENDES: --so happy birthday, Grandma.

VINCE LARA: Yeah. [CHUCKLES]

CLARION MENDES: They have the most rich life experiences. And so it's so rewarding to be able to give back to individuals that have given so much of their lives to their hobbies, and their interests, and their vocations. So it's great.

VINCE LARA: That's fantastic. So I wonder, today's era of communication is all about text, and it's all about non-speech communication. Does that help someone who has a speech difficulty communicate?

CLARION MENDES: Well, if we look at the idea that pretty much everybody uses communication in multiple modalities-- so we're not just robots who are producing information that we process in our brain, right? We are using communication in so many different ways, whether it's texting, email, body language, dress, so on and so forth. So I think we probably should look at it not just as something that helps individuals that might have a communication disorder, but we all benefit from having multiple different options to communicate, not just speech.

VINCE LARA: Because it makes the message easier to convey?

CLARION MENDES: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it might make it more complex, right? You can think of the situation where you sent a text message and then regretted it shortly thereafter, realizing, oh it didn't convey the right tone or it didn't convey the right message that I was looking for. So just like any tool-- if we look at communication as a tool-- it can be used for good or not so good.

VINCE LARA: That is true. Now, you've been involved in helping transgendered people find their voice. Very popular research that you've undertaken. Now, how does that process work? And to you, why is it important?

CLARION MENDES: So it's been very, very rewarding. And I will say that since I started working with this population about four years ago, the vocabulary and the terminology has changed, and the culture has changed quite a bit. So I'm just going to say that we don't say transgendered people, we say transgender individuals.

VINCE LARA: OK.

CLARION MENDES: So I stumbled upon working with this community about four years ago, and it was completely by accident. So, like, a lot of, like I mentioned earlier, having a curiosity and an eagerness to learn has just been super rewarding in this field, and is one of the reasons why I love being in speech path. So about four years ago, a young woman had reached out to somebody-- a couple of people my department-- my department head as well as the professor who was here at the time, tenure track working with voice. And she had mentioned that she wanted to work on voice feminization because her gender identity was female, and it was causing a lot of distress that she had this masculine-sounding voice.

And so my department head and my colleague said, why don't you speak with Clarion? She'd probably be a good fit for you as far as this kind of treatment is concerned. And I met with this young woman and I was completely honest with her. I said, I've not worked with this population before. I said, once I heard from you I started digging into the research a little bit to see what's out there. And I said I'm open-minded, but it's going to be a learning journey for us together.

And she's like, that sounds good. Let's do it. And it was a great experience. Made a tremendous positive impact in her life. And since then, I've pursued additional education, done a lot of readings. I have to pull-- because it's a relatively new field of study-- when I'm working with individuals, I have to pull from research in lots of different fields. So possibly acoustics-- I've looked into the forensic linguistics literature, and linguistics in general. And so since then, I've just had a big increase in caseload from word of mouth, from different health care practitioners in the community.

VINCE LARA: Locally, or have you extended beyond that?

CLARION MENDES: Locally, although I do hear-- I do get people from all over the state. So for instance, Lurie in Chicago has reached out to me for resources as well as some places in Wisconsin, and just around the state because it's a relatively rare specialty.

VINCE LARA: Can you talk a little bit about how you go about changing someone's voice?

CLARION MENDES: Yeah, absolutely.

VINCE LARA: Oh, great.

CLARION MENDES: So I think a lot of people, when they think of voice feminization, immediately their brain goes to, let's increase the pitch. But if we think about when an individual is speaking in a falsetto, it doesn't sound particularly feminine, right? It just sounds like a male speaking with a really high squeaky voice. So while there is a baseline pitch that a person needs to achieve in order to be perceived as having a feminine voice, there's a lot of other factors involved.

So I focus a lot on resonance, which is kind of a tricky term, right? Sort of difficult to define, it's difficult to train. But some of the things that I'm looking for when we're training residents is, how do we modify our articulators? So for instance, our lips and our tongue, to make the oral cavity, the mouth, present sound with a more feminine manner?

So some of the ways we do that is, if we sort of move the position of the tongue to be more forward in the mouth, it's going to sound more feminine than if we were to retract the tongue to the back of the mouth. So things like that-- playing with the articulators, playing with inflection, helping to better connect breath support with foundation-- these are all things that can help shape the voice. But it's a process. And it's a lot of work for the folks that choose to pursue this, but it generally is very rewarding for them as well.

VINCE LARA: I imagine so. Do you ever look at the person who is asking for this kind of help and try to fit the right voice with them by doing that? Or is it something they say to you, I'm trying to sound like this? I mean, how does that process work?

CLARION MENDES: That's such a great question. So something that's super important-- and I'm so glad that you brought that up-- is I'm their guide. It's not my job to tell them exactly what they're supposed to sound like. Everybody's goals are going to be different. But it might be my job to help shape expectations to be realistic.

So we can do amazing things transforming the voice and communication. But if somebody has a very deep bassy voice, probably not going to make them a soprano. However, what we can do is make a voice that helps them feel like themselves, express themselves in the identity that they truly are.

VINCE LARA: Mm-hmm. Well, as a clinical professor, then, you have a course load. Are there courses that are your favorites? I know it's like asking who your favorite child is, right?

CLARION MENDES: Yeah, right, right right. So I primarily have taught the motor speech disorders class. And so I'll be teaching that again in the summer. I am excited, though, because coming up in the spring, I teach a medical methods in speech language pathology class.

And what I love about that is, that is helping students prepare for the final step before they actually get their master's degree in speech language pathology. So at our institution, the last 10 weeks of their graduate career they're in a full time medical externship. And that's really exciting because in that opportunity they get to work with patients full-time and get to show what they know-- show what they've acquired and learned during their experience here.

And so the medical methods and speech language pathology class prepares them so that they can take all of the coursework and all of the clinical work and be able to apply it to patients directly.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Clarion Mendes. This has been A Few Minutes With.

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