by Cameron Coppala, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 69% of all adult Americans reported using at least one social media account in 2018. This number has continued to increase year after year among all age groups, the highest being 83% of all adults between ages 18-49. The ever-growing popularity of social media has resulted in integration of social media into nearly every facet of our lives, our professional lives being no exception. The presence of social media in professional circles has undoubtedly benefitted speech-language pathologists and audiologists alike, whether this takes the form of discussing the latest research through Facebook groups, sharing therapy resources through Pinterest, or advertising innovative products through Instagram. However, the ubiquity of social media in everyday and professional life is not without potential drawbacks. One particular consequence and area of concern is the division of the personal versus the professional, and whether a distinct separation of the two can—or should—truly exist.
On the surface, this division may not seem hugely important. After all, it’s unlikely for an ethical concern to arise from a coworker or client seeing your Facebook post about brunch last Sunday. But consider a much more complex scenario: an SLP uses their Facebook account both for personal posts and for contributing to discussions on SLP-specific professional groups. While their contributions in SLP groups are always professional and polite, another group member who happens to look at this member’s Facebook profile discovers several upsetting comments there. On a shared news article about a transgender woman, this person has commented “this is sick, just my opinion” and “will never call it a woman.” Their profile also contains a few other similar comments directed towards other transgender people and the broader LGBTQ community. In this scenario, has the SLP violated the ASHA Code of Ethics, even though these posts were on their personal page? I argue that yes, a scenario like this could potentially constitute an ethics violation, despite these statements occurring in an ostensibly non-professional setting.
It appears these statements could violate Principle IV of the Code of Ethics, which states that “Individuals shall uphold the dignity and autonomy of the professions, maintain collaborative and harmonious interprofessional and intraprofessional relationships, and accept the professions' self-imposed standards.” Specifically, these statements go against rule L of this Principle, which states that “Individuals shall not discriminate in their relationships with colleagues, assistants, students, support personnel, and members of other professions and disciplines on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity/gender expression, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, disability, culture, language, dialect, or socioeconomic status.” By calling a transgender woman “sick” and unabashedly referring to her as “it,” this SLP’s comments show a clear discriminatory attitude towards transgender women on the basis of gender identity/expression.
But perhaps one could argue that this should not constitute a violation, as this SLP’s comments are not directed towards a specific individual with whom the SLP has a professional relationship and are their own opinions posted on their personal page. The language of the broader Principle IV is important here in that it includes “maintaining collaborative and harmonious interprofessional and intraprofessional relationships.” While it is true these comments were not directed towards a specific colleague and occurred only on the SLP’s personal page, the fact that this SLP uses the same Facebook account for both their personal and professional interactions is crucial. Any person in the same professional Facebook groups could access this SLP’s profile, and it is possible that clients could also easily find their profile. These posts and comments on their personal Facebook page are therefore easily linked to this SLP’s professional life, in which their comments constitute an ethics violation. In fact, ASHA explicitly states in their Issues in Ethics statement on Cultural and Linguistic Competence that rule L “underscores that discrimination in any professional arena and against any individual for any reason, whether subtle or overt, ultimately dishonors the professions and harms all those within the practice.”
Another important point to consider is that this hypothetical incident resulted in at least one other professional learning that this SLP holds prejudicial attitudes towards transgender and LGBTQ individuals and demonstrates an alarming lack of education about these populations. Considering that LGBTQ people are estimated to make up 4.5% or more of the general American adult population, it is all but guaranteed that this SLP has treated or is currently treating LGBTQ individuals, whether or not the SLP is aware. Furthermore, voice and communication modification therapy for transgender people falls under an SLP’s scope of practice. If a transgender person considering voice therapy were to see this SLP’s transphobic comments, it would reflect horribly on the profession in general and likely dissuade them from seeking out the services of any SLP. In short, SLPs are expected to be able to provide culturally competent, nondiscriminatory care for transgender and LGBTQ clients, and the willfully transphobic nature of this SLP’s statements call into question their ability to do so.
So how could this situation be addressed? For this particular issue, I believe direct outreach and increased cultural competency education are the best solutions. Simply having the SLP delete these comments or more completely separate their professional and personal social media does not address the root of the uncovered issue, which is this clinician’s prejudicial attitudes. Ideally, the people who initially discovered these troubling comments should reach out to the SLP in question in an attempt to educate about why their statements are potentially harmful to clients and colleagues alike. But while this clinician’s opinions may not ultimately change, this discussion would help them to better acknowledge and understand their existing biases. Ideally, this will enable them to be more conscious of these biases and recognize situations in which they feel unable to provide culturally competent care. This way, the clinician would be able to provide appropriate referrals or other resources to ensure that the client in question does receive the competent and compassionate care they deserve.
Ultimately, social media has facilitated much positive change in our field by connecting different networks of professionals that otherwise might never have the opportunity to interact and learn from one another. However, along with this comes the consequence that much of our personal lives can easily become linked to our professional lives via our social media pages. I don’t think there is an easy answer to where the demarcation between the personal and the professional should lie, especially in regard to expressing of potentially controversial or prejudicial opinions that are not linked to a person’s professional life. This is an issue that undoubtedly calls for the development of more specific guidelines to address situations such as this example scenario and others in which the distinction between personal and professional is not abundantly clear.
Pew Research Center (2018). Social Media Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2016). Code of Ethics [Ethics]. Available from /Code-of-Ethics/#sec1.5.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2017). Issues in Ethics: Cultural and Linguistic Competence. Available from /Practice/ethics/Cultural-and-Linguistic-Competence/.
Newport, F. (2018, May 22). In U.S., estimate of LGBT population rises to 4.5%. Gallup. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/234863/estimate-lgbt-population-rises.aspx.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2016). Scope of Practice in Speech-Language Pathology [Scope of Practice]. Available from www.asha.org/policy/.