What to Know About Speech Impairment

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on October 21, 2023
4 min read

A speech impairment affects people who have problems speaking in a regular tone of voice or tempo. Speech impairments make it hard for people to communicate properly, and they can happen in both children and adults.

These disorders can cause frustration and embarrassment to the person suffering from them.

People who have speech impairments have a hard time pronouncing different speech sounds. They might distort the sounds of some words and leave other sounds out completely.

There are three general categories of speech impairment:

  • Fluency disorder. This type can be described as continuity, smoothness, rate, and effort in speech production.
  • Voice disorder. A voice disorder means you have an atypical tone of voice. It could be an unusual pitch, quality, resonance, or volume.
  • Articulation disorder. If you have an articulation disorder, you might distort certain sounds. You could also fully omit sounds.

Stuttering, or stammering, is a common fluency disorder that affects about 3 million Americans. It usually affects young children who are just learning to speak, but it can continue on into adulthood.

Speech and language impairments are two words that are often used interchangeably, but they are two very different types of problems.

Speech means talking. It uses the jaw muscles, tongue, lips, and vocal chords. Language is a set of words and symbols made to communicate a message. Language and speech disorders can affect you separately, or both can happen at the same time.

Speech impairments can begin in childhood and carry on through your adult years. Others can happen due to trauma, or after a medical event like a stroke.

The types of speech impairments are:

  • Childhood apraxia of speech. This can happen to children when it’s time for them to start talking. The brain’s signals don’t communicate with the mouth, so the child can’t move their lips and tongue in the way they’re mean to.
  • Dysarthria. This type of speech impairment happens when the muscles you use to talk are too weak, and can’t form words properly.
  • Orofacial myofunctional disorders (OMD). OMDs are characterized by an abnormal pattern of facial muscle use. OMD interferes with how the facial muscles, including the tongue, are used. People who suffer from OMD might also struggle to breathe through their nose.
  • Speech sound disorders. It’s normal for children to struggle to pronounce certain sounds as they learn to talk. But after ages four or five, constant mispronunciation might signal a problem. It can continue into adulthood, or some people get it after a stroke.
  • Stuttering. Stuttering can mean repeating words or sounds like “uh” and “um” (disfluencies) involuntarily. Stuttering can be intensified by strong emotions or stress.
  • Voice. A voice disorder can mean you “lost” your voice because you stressed it too much. It can also mean a chronic cough or paralysis of the vocal cords, among others.

Other than childhood speech impairments, there are a range of reasons you could get one in your adult years. They can happen due to a traumatic event, illness, or surgery.

Dysarthria, aphasia, and voice disturbances can happen in adulthood, and are usually due to these medical events.

Aphasia. Aphasia is the loss of ability to understand words, spoken or written. There are many types of aphasia. It can happen after a stroke or if a tumor reaches the part of the brain where language is processed.

Medical issues that can cause aphasia:

  • Dementia
  • Head trauma
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Brain tumor
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Dysarthria. Dysarthria is usually caused by a nerve problem. The person suffering from it loses the ability to make certain sounds or might have poor pronunciation. It can also affect your ability to control the tongue, larynx, lips, and vocal chords.

Medical issues that can cause dysarthria:

  • Facial trauma
  • Head trauma
  • Diseases that affect your nervous system
  • Stroke
  • Side effects of certain medication
  • Alcoholic intoxication
  • Dementia
  • Dentures that don’t fit properly
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

Voice disturbances. Traumatic events or extreme stress placed on the vocal cords can cause you to “lose” your voice or have a vocal disturbance. Disease can also affect the way your voice sounds.

Cancerous or noncancerous growths or nodules on the vocal cords can make your voice sound different.

Having a speech impairment can be a very frustrating and embarrassing experience for the person experiencing it. It’s important to be patient and understanding when communicating.

Try the following tips to improve communication and foster an accepting environment with someone who has a speech impairment:

  • Speak slowly and use hand gestures
  • Keep a pen and paper handy in case it’s needed to communicate
  • Maintain a calm environment free of stimulating sounds
  • Use simple phrases when you speak
  • Use your normal tone of voice

Consulting with a mental health care provider can help with feelings of anger and depression that can accompany speech impairments.