Aphasia Impacts Communication, Not Intellect: 5 Ways Employers Can Help

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By Capital Blue Cross –  THINK (Trusted Health Information, News, and Knowledge) is a community publication of Capital Blue Cross. Our mission is to provide education, resources, and news on the latest health and insurance issues.


Strokes or brain injuries leave a million Americans struggling to properly process language. But their intellect is not impacted, and employers can make modifications to help.

We may not have known the condition’s name, but many of us have known – or known of – someone with aphasia.

Usually the sudden result of a stroke or brain injury (it can also progress gradually in rare cases), aphasia impairs a person’s ability to communicate and process language without impacting intelligence.

That makes it an enormously frustrating condition for the roughly 1 million Americans afflicted with it.

June is National Aphasia Awareness Month, and Dr. Jeremy Wigginton, Capital Blue Cross’ Chief Medical Officer, says it’s critical to understand that those with aphasia struggle to communicate, not to comprehend.

“Because people with aphasia may struggle with various avenues of communication – talking, reading, writing, accurately computing what they’re hearing – it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions about their cognitive ability,” Dr. Wigginton said. “Aphasia sufferers remain competent adults. They know what they want to say; they just can’t always find the words to say it. They’re not deaf; they just struggle sometimes to process what they hear.”


The Fetterman Example

Many well-known people, from actors Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone to U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, live with aphasia.

Fetterman, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, suffered a well-publicized stroke weeks before being elected in 2022, and it severely impacted his verbal- and auditory-processing abilities. When Fetterman began his tenure in Washington, he required accommodations and relied heavily on assistive technology for his Senate work: closed captioning devices, and audio-to-text transcription – primarily via a tablet – for help communicating during committee sessions.

Fetterman described his hearing issues as inconsistent; they’d worsen when stress intensified. At their worst, Fetterman said, it was like making out the garbled teacher’s voice in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

Stress does, in fact, worsen aphasia’s symptoms, making it harder to hear, speak, or understand.

Which is why Fetterman and three other senators, including fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, in late 2023 introduced a bill “to support national training, technical assistance, and resource centers, to ensure that all individuals with significant expressive communication disabilities” can access assistive technology in the workplace and elsewhere.

“I never thought about captioning before I had the stroke,” Fetterman told The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in October 2023, “and now I realize that I have to be an advocate for anyone with a disability to have the kind of technology that allows them to fully participate in society.”

Aphasia Accommodations in the Workplace

Workplaces may opt to take their cue from the Senate and assist employees with aphasia. The National Aphasia Association suggests:

  1. Slow down employee’s work pace: It may need to change, temporarily or permanently, and the slower cadence also may help other employees process new information.
  2. Use multiple forms of communication: Use hand gestures while speaking, or repeat by email the information from a meeting. Everyone benefits.
  3. Create a quiet workspace: Noisy environments can increase challenges for those with aphasia.
  4. Prepare co-workers: Educating staff about aphasia can help accommodate everyone’s needs.
  5. Provide healthcare plans that assist with the recovery and rehabilitation that accompanies aphasia after strokes or brain injuries. Many Capital Blue Cross plans, for instance, cover a variety of necessary rehabilitative speech therapies and other support treatments for those with aphasia.

“Those with aphasia can continue to enrich the workplace and produce at a high level,” Dr. Wigginton said. “They just may require the proper rehabilitation, support, patience, and accommodation.”


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