Overcoming employment barriers for people with speech related disabilities


Overcoming employment barriers for people with speech related disabilities

Queen’s graduate student and activist Glenda Watson Hyatt received the 2023 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation-Master’s.

By Catarina Chagas, Research Outreach and Events Specialist

November 23, 2023


Glenda Watson Hyatt, recipient of the 2023 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation–Master's.

Glenda Watson Hyatt, has been honored with the 2023 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation–Master's.

Finding jobs is harder for persons with disabilities. For people with communication disabilities, unemployment rates can be as high as 86 per cent. Still, Canada lacks research to inform best practices in recruiting, hiring, and retaining persons with such disabilities. Queen’s graduate student Glenda Watson Hyatt aims to fill this gap by investigating the main barriers to employment faced by Canadians living with speech disabilities. For this transformative work, she received the 2023 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation—Master’s.

"Congratulations to Glenda on her outstanding work on equity in communication, and to Mitacs for recognizing the impact of this work," says Vice-Principal (Research) Nancy Ross. "This research contributes to creating a more inclusive and equitable society, fulfilling science's ultimate goal of improving the quality of human life."

Speech-related disabilities may have many causes, including cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, strokes, multiple sclerosis, or oral cancers, and most have nothing to do with hearing losses or difficulty in understanding what others say. Speech disabilities also vary in severity and each person may use different strategies to deal with them, including, for example, the use of alternative and augmentative communication devices. However, most workplaces are not inclusive of persons with speech disabilities.

Dr. Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research), Glenda Watson Hyatt, and Dr. Claire Davies (Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering)

Dr. Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research), Glenda Watson Hyatt, and Associate Professor Dr. Claire Davies (Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering).

Enacted in 2019, the Accessible Canada Act aims, in part, to remove the barriers for persons with disabilities seeking jobs and, to comply with it, employers will need to make changes in current hiring and managing practices by Jan. 1, 2040. Still, most evidence currently available to inform workplace communication best practices is focused on hearing or sight loss. There is little knowledge on how to create inclusive environments for persons with speech impairments, even though speech-related disabilities affect more than half a million Canadians over the age of four.

Watson Hyatt decided to collect insights and experiences from other people with speech disabilities in seeking job opportunities. She quickly identified shared negative experiences in hiring processes and workplace relationships. 

Building on her own experience living with cerebral palsy, she explains: "For some reason, which continues to baffle me, the majority of our society links the ability to speak with the ability to hear and understand. They assume that I do not understand or cannot hear, and begin talking louder and slower. Some even use gestures as if an impromptu game of charades has broken out, or worse, they totally ignore and dismiss me."

For Watson Hyatt, research is a crucial step in promoting change. Her Master’s research project, supervised by Claire Davies (Mechanical and Materials Engineering), is a first-of-its-kind study to uncover Canadian employer’s limited knowledge of speech disabilities. Her preliminary results suggest that the biggest barrier faced by Canadians with speech disabilities in finding and retaining jobs is the lack of awareness and acceptance. 

"The systemic discrimination and ableism against this segment of the disabled population is difficult to navigate when seeking employment and can cause unnecessary physical and/or mental stress," she says. "Speech disabilities and the need for communication access are less understood by the general public; public awareness and education are desperately needed."

The research team is partnering with the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW) to leverage the results to create online resources, training materials, and best practice recommendations for employers. The researchers also plan to support the designing of a national strategy to promote equity in employing persons with speech disabilities, increasing employment rates of this segment of the workforce.

Celebrating excellence: The 2023 Mitacs Award recipients at the award ceremony in Ottawa.

Celebrating excellence: The 2023 Mitacs Award recipients at the ceremony in Ottawa.

Celebrating landmark research

Funded by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that connects industry and academia to solve Canada’s major business challenges. Its programs support researchers, including graduate students, in developing groundbreaking projects that will foster innovation and growth across industries.

Watson Hyatt, along with eight other researchers, received her award during a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Nov.  22. "Winning the Mitacs Award came as a total surprise," says Watson Hyatt. “To me, it acknowledges my work and, more importantly, it validates the research is, indeed, very much needed. Winning this award ensures voices that were once systemically dismissed will now be heard.”

For more information about the Mitacs awards and a full list of winners, visit the website.

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