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Vancouver speech therapist Meaghan McLeod helps a child client plan how to make a board game.

Therapist shortage could hinder new disability-support system for children

Province needs many more practitioners to serve children with disabilities as promised

By Megan Wilde , in Health , on November 23, 2021 Tags: , , , ,

Therapists warn the province’s plan to expand its already overstretched disability-support system to serve 8,300 more children will need more practitioners than B.C. can supply.

They say there already aren’t enough clinicians to serve 30,000 neurodivergent children and children with disabilities currently using the province’s support system. In October, the Ministry of Children and Family Development announced that a new hub system will expand these services by 28 per cent over the next three years.

“Given the shortage of therapists in this province, where the heck is the government going to come up with the probably hundreds of clinicians needed for these programs,” asked Wendy Duke, a Vancouver speech-language pathologist and clinic director. “They’re not going to get that resolved in three years,” she said.

McLeod listens to her client talking about a children’s book, Room on the Broom.
Meaghan McLeod listens to her client talking about a children’s book, Room on the Broom.

Down Syndrome Resource Foundation CEO Wayne Leslie also said demand for therapists outstrips supply.

“Because of the need, if I could hire four more therapists, I would. But finding them is a whole different issue, speech therapists in particular,” Leslie said.

Speech and Hearing B.C. estimated a few years ago that the province needed 500 more therapists to adequately meet demand. The ministry’s only record of current clinician numbers lists 1,072 behaviour analysts, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists serving children in B.C.

“For the last eight years, it’s gotten progressively harder to find individuals to work in the lower mainland,” said Becca Yu, a speech therapist and Speech and Hearing B.C.’s president. “The typical cost of living for anyone here and the cost to maintain licensing and certification in the province is fairly expensive.”

The province’s only training ground for new speech therapists is at the University of British Columbia, which enrolls 36 graduate students each year. Only some specialize in pediatric therapy, said Kate Chase, a clinical assistant professor in the two-year program at UBC.

Duke hopes the province plans to boost enrolment.

“Let’s see some increase in funding to the schools in B.C. that train therapists,” she said. “Without that, none of this is going to happen in a good way.”

Duke said the ministry should have consulted more meaningfully with practitioners before announcing the system overhaul. Yu said Speech and Hearing B.C. was not among the 1,500 individuals and organizations the ministry consulted with about the support-system overhaul. Her professional organization sent a letter asking the ministry to work with them during the implementation phase.

McLeod and her client use pictures to tell the parable of inclusivity from Room on the Broom.
Meaghan McLeod and her client use pictures to tell the parable of inclusivity from Room on the Broom.

When announcing the overhaul, Minister Mitzi Dean said the new system will give children access to services based on their needs, instead of a diagnosis, which many families wait months or years to get in the public system now. Dean said the current patchwork of programs leaves too many families without support.

The ministry did not, however, address the therapist shortage in an emailed statement. The ministry stated it has researched the current state of service delivery to “ensure that the expertise exists to staff the new hubs.” The ministry said it expects hub operators will recruit experts or sub-contract with private service providers.

Several practitioners said the therapist shortage already creates problems in the ministry’s current system of child development centres, which operate like hubs and are understaffed and underfunded.

“The waitlists have gotten longer and longer,” said Meaghan McLeod, a Vancouver speech-language pathologist whose child has an intellectual disability. “Families come in with a two year old who isn’t talking, and then they’re put on a waitlist for a year and a half, sometimes longer. That’s a long time to go without advice, without help, without reassurance.”

“So there’s this hope that with this change, we’re going to open the door to children that were previously underserved,” McLeod added. “But what will happen to them once they go inside? Are there enough of us to do this right?”