Speech unit may be forced to close

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A UNIQUE hospital speech unit for children who cannot talk may have to close because its therapy is considered too costly by health authorities who now buy treatment for their patients.

The Nuffield Speech and Language Unit in Ealing, west London, is a typical casualty of the Government's National Health Service changes, according to Claire Wright, its head teacher. Specialist care which benefits only a small number of patients cannot be sustained in the internal market, she said. It costs about pounds 30,000 a year to treat a child at the unit.

Mrs Wright says there is no equivalent service available for the 12 children in the residential unit, who need intensive one-to- one therapy from an early age if they are to have any hope of learning to talk. The children, aged four to six, are of normal intelligence and hearing, but cannot 'process' language because of a neurological defect.

North East Thames Regional Health Authority said yesterday that it recognised the valuable work done by the unit.

'We would certainly not like to see it close . . . but at the end of the day it is up to the purchasers to buy the service,' a spokeswoman said.

Bloomsbury and Islington Health Authority has funded the unit as part of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital since 1981. But following the 1991 NHS changes, it is under no obligation to continue. A two-year reprieve was granted by the region, during which funding continued, but that runs out in July.

An appeal to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, by Kevin Gardner, chairman of the hospital, has also failed. Mrs Bottomley advised him that the matter should be pursued locally.

Each child at the unit receives three speech and language therapy sessions a day in addition to normal schooling.

A typical length of stay is two years, by which time a child should be able to speak. Some may need sign language to help them communicate, and that is also taught at the unit. Between eight and 10 children compete for the four or five places that become available each year.

Jane Henderson, of Watford, is one of many parents who fear for their children's future if the unit closes. Her son Martin, five, is dyspraxic - he can understand language but has difficulty putting words together.

'When he started at the unit a year ago he had half a dozen individual sounds and three or four words, like 'Mum', 'Dad' and 'Hello'. He can now string 10 or 12 words together in a sentence.'

Martin was due to stay at the unit for another year. 'If it closes then there is nothing for him,' Mrs Henderson said. 'We've tried private speech therapy but could only afford one session a week and it didn't help. Mrs Bottomley says education and health should pay for the unit, but they can't and they won't. Who will accept the responsibility?'

Closure re-think, page 8

(Photograph omitted)