Queen’s University Masters student recognized with Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation

Glenda Watson Hyatt, Master’s student at Queen’s University. Photo via Progressive Marketing Innovations Ltd.

Queen’s University Master’s student Glenda Watson Hyatt will be recognized with a Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation at a ceremony on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023.

The recognition comes after Watson Hyatt launched a landmark study to uncover the current state of affairs in Canada in terms of employers’ awareness and knowledge of speech disabilities, and the barriers facing prospective employees who may rely on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) strategies in the workplace.

According to a press release from Progressive Marketing Innovations on behalf of Mitacs — a national innovation organization that fosters growth by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions and supported by the Government of Ontario — when a high school guidance counsellor casually asked, if given a choice, would she rather be able to walk or talk, Watson Hyatt immediately responded “talk” and scooted off to class unfazed. Now, as an adult researcher at Queen’s University and after 41 more years of living with cerebral palsy, her answer would still be “talk,” but Watson Hyatt is far from unfazed, the organization noted.

After completing a first-of-its-kind study of employment barriers facing Canadians living with speech disabilities — whose unemployment rate is as high as 86 per cent compared to 21 per cent for Canadians without disabilities — Watson Hyatt is extremely concerned and frustrated by the general lack of knowledge about speech-related impairment, and has made it her mission to increase public awareness and affect public policy change, according to the release. What she found is that their biggest challenge to finding and retaining employment is a lack of awareness and acceptance in society, and that systemic discrimination against this segment of the disabled population causes unnecessary physical and/or mental stress, according to the release.

“Surprisingly, my inability to walk and my inability to talk are not created equal. They are not equally understood, acknowledged and accommodated,” said Watson Hyatt, using her iPad to communicate.

As a motivational speaker and gifted researcher who capitalizes on universal design of online systems to engage effectively with people from around the world, Watson Hyatt was reportedly somewhat surprised to learn how tricky job interviews could be and how easily people with speech disabilities are overlooked when it comes to employment equity.

“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,” she said.

“Developing a universal design strategy to promote equity in employing individuals with speech disabilities will allow Canada to tap into an underutilized labour pool, increasing the employment rate of this segment of the disabled community and significantly increasing their financial independence and meaningful contribution to society,” Watson Hyatt continued, crediting Mitacs for helping accelerate her research.

“Participating in the Mitacs program provided the funding to conduct this much-needed research in Canada. On a personal level, it enabled me to further develop technical skills including data collection and analysis, and universal design, as well as soft skills in project management, ethical considerations, and teamwork.”

To comply with the Accessible Canada Act of 2019, which aims, in part, to identify and remove barriers to employment, employers will need to adapt their practices in recruiting, retaining and promoting individuals living with speech disabilities on or before January 1, 2040. Yet, Watson Hyatt discovered that current knowledge is centred on people with hearing or sight loss. Speech-related disabilities — often related to cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, stroke, multiple sclerosis or oral cancers, which affect approximately 550,000 Canadians over the age of four — is less understood, she said.

By applying the Six Sigma engineering problem-solving method of define, measure, analyse, design and verify, Watson Hyatt’s objective is to develop a universal design framework that can be applied to improve the process of recruiting, retaining and promoting individuals with speech disabilities so that they can be more successful in finding and retaining employment, and lead more full and satisfied lives. According to the release, some of the barriers identified through her research include: inaccessible workplaces, fast-paced environments that don’t support the additional time required for alternative communication strategies, challenges related to interactions and relationship building with colleagues, underestimating the skills of people who use AAC, and lack of awareness of and experience with accommodations.

In the release, Mitacs noted that the next step in her project is to interview employers who have experience in recruiting, hiring and retaining people with speech disabilities, as well as to gather further insights from Canadians interested in sharing their experiences living with speech disabilities. Once completed, findings from the research are expected to inform the continuous improvement of Canadian Council of Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW) programs, services and resources for supporting employees with speech disabilities, a community for whom existing data and research remain sparse.

The Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation—Master’s is presented to a Mitacs intern who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation during their Mitacs-funded research, according to the organization. Mitacs is supported by funding from the Government of Canada and provincial and territorial governments across the country, the organization explained..

Watson Hyatt is one of nine Mitacs award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers who take part in Mitacs programs each year. The remaining eight recipients were reportedly recognized for outstanding innovation, commercialization or exceptional leadership in other areas of research. The award will be presented at a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023.

In congratulating the winners, Mitacs CEO John Hepburn reflected on Mitacs’ 25-year history of providing Canadian innovators with opportunities for experiential skills development through strategic partnerships between industry, government and academia.

“Mitacs is honoured to play a pivotal role in empowering industry leaders across Canada to foster game-changing ideas, and we couldn’t be more pleased to celebrate their significant achievements with these awards,” Hepburn said.

For more information about the Mitacs awards visit www.mitacs.ca/.

Glenda Watson Hyatt Watson is a Master’s student in applied sciences at Queen’s University working under the supervision of Dr. Claire Davies.

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