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Meet Kitty Yiu: A Neuro-Diverse Talent

Recently we shared with you some of the realities of disability in the workplace in Canada and the typical accommodations needed (you can access that article here). As promised, this week we would like to introduce to you a fellow geospatial colleague – Kitty Yiu. Kitty shared her career experience with us and outlined some of the challenges she or others may face when accommodations are necessary for a worker to succeed.

Interview with Kitty                             

Credit: @pamlau Photography

Kitty Yiu is an “Open GIS Mapper” from Toronto (eProfile | LinkedIn). She has a B.A. in Geographic Analysis and a Graduate Certificate in Applied Digital Geography & GIS conferred from Ryerson University in 2010. Kitty is a neuro-diverse talent who understands underemployment and disabilities awareness.

She was first diagnosed with a learning disability shortly after graduating from university. Some of the challenges she has faced due to her disability includes procrastination, verbal communication and often being perceived as “slow”.

Neuro-diversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation (Specialisterne Foundation, 2021). These differences can include those labeled with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autistic Spectrum, and others (Specialisterne Canada, 2021).

Lindsey: Hi Kitty thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with the community. We would like to get to know you better. Where are you from?

Kitty: I immigrated to Canada over 25 years ago and grew up in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA, Ontario). For about 4 years (2010 – 2014) I resided in Lindsay, Ontario, and Calgary, Alberta while attempting to pursue a GIS mapping career.

Lindsey: Why do you refer to yourself as an “Open GIS Mapper”, instead of a standard occupational GIS title (i.e. GIS Technician, GIS Analyst, GIS Specialist, etc)?

Kitty: This is simply because I have not been employed in the GIS field professionally since early 2014. I decided to re-evaluate my goals (personal priorities, long-term employability). At the time I felt my GIS learning and work were at diminished qualities because of poor self-care and unrealistic self goal setting.

However, my leave from working in GIS has allowed me to learn open-source GIS on my own terms, without other obligations (academic, work or professional development), purely as an interest to cultivate. I like that GIS is becoming more accessible, and can be learned online, more so than it was over 10 years ago.

Lindsey: Do you feel your career / employment situation and wellness has improved, any gain or loss? 

Kitty: During my underemployment, I found work outside of the GIS field. I was around many other people doing different occupations (jobs you see commonly everyday) to support their own livelihood and some of my colleagues were also positively contributing to society by volunteer work that aligns with their personal values or hobbies. The last three years has been particularly meaningful since I also learned humbleness, kindness, generosity and simplicity from many positive colleagues who I wouldn’t have otherwise met if I had stayed on the typical GIS career path.  

Education and career experiences

Lindsey: Where did you do your undergraduate study in GIS?

Kitty: I attended Ryerson University in Toronto where I graduated both with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Geographic Analysis, and a Graduate Certificate in Applied Digital Geography & GIS in 2010. The undergraduate program consisted of four areas of GIS specializations: Environment Analysis, Methods & Techniques, Location Analysis and Urban Analysis. I remember being most interested in, and very skillful in, courses with cartography and tourism geography components.

Lindsey: How were you first exposed to the GIS technologies as an undergraduate?

Kitty: At Ryerson, there were two GIS computer laboratories reserved for the geography students and those who were taking geography courses as elective credits. We were exposed to GIS desktop software (Esri ArcGIS, MapInfo Pro, MS Excel) starting in year 1. From the beginning, most professors and instructors constantly reminded us that GIS is only a tool (but powerful) to support humans’ decision-makings on Earth.

I remember that Google Maps was very new (and very slow) in 2005, my first USB key was only 256MB and not every student owned a laptop (including myself; and typically was not affordable on a student’s budget). For these reasons, GIS assignments had to be done on a desktop and working files had to be saved onto a server drive on campus. Don’t forget that at that time, online/mobile GIS was not yet available, and many people used keypad cellphones, Windows Live (MSN) Messenger, or email to communicate with their peers online.

GIS assignments at Ryerson greatly emphasized software’s technical proficiency (mapping), geographical reasoning (writing, analyzing, & communicating), research information (self direct learning) and project management (time). Now years later reflecting back, I feel that having some GIS skill set had empowered my digital literacy and/or everyday problem-solving in daily life.

Lindsey: Did you continue to pursue post-graduate study in GIS after university? If yes, where and which GIS specialization?

Kitty: I had attempted to pursue the GIS Cartographic Specialist graduate certificate program at Fleming College (Lindsay, ON) in the Fall 2010; it was something I planned after my 3rd year in geography at Ryerson. Fleming’s GIS graduate program is very high standard and well prepares students for their GIS career. I highly recommend it to anyone who can afford (financially & time) to study. It was unfortunate that I withdrew from the program after 8 months because of my poor mental health wellness at that time.

Lindsey: How did you move on your early GIS career? What were the highlights?

Kitty: My first GIS internship was with the Town of Markham (now the City of Markham, Ontario) in 2008. I supported their small GIS team by doing vector data edits on municipal roads records. It was a repetitive task and it could have been seen as tedious to people who prefer doing analytical GIS work, but I was very skillful doing the edits with high accuracy. I enjoyed working with my coworkers in our small GIS team. After my internship with the City of Markham, I remained in contact with my supervisor for mentorship for years until he recently retired.

My second internship was with the National Energy Board (NEB — now the Canada Energy Regulator) in Calgary, Alberta. I accepted the employment opportunity and arrived in the city on Canada Day in 2011. My internship highlights with the NEB are that I had assisted with internal communications of GIS mapping services, georeferenced the reported oil & gas pipeline incidents, and improved the corporation’s cartographic standard in printed map publications (internal & external). That year was also the first time which the NEB had started using Esri ArcGIS Online for the internal map communication, in addition to using printed maps.

My original plan was to complete the one-year internship in Calgary and then return to Fleming College to finish the remainder of my graduate GIS studies. However, the internship contract was extended and immediately afterward I found full-time GIS employment at a consulting firm in Calgary. It lasted about 9 months until the “oil bust” recession. I was then laid-off due to work shortage and I returned to Toronto.

Lindsey: What kind of GIS mapping work have you done in the past (at schools or workplaces) or open-mapping (for leisure or hobby) in recent years?

Kitty: Below are some examples of my best work:

More about Kitty’s challenges

Lindsey: How have you perceived that having a learning disability has hindered you remaining in the GIS field at your fullest potential?

Kitty: In my case, I was not aware of my condition until shortly after I graduated from university. That means I completed my university studies with a “perseverance” mindset and without a learning accommodation (which are supports typically in place for students who have been diagnosed with similar learning impairment conditions). I had confidence and procrastination issues throughout my academic years that took a toll on my mental health, and what’s worse, I had ignored the problem. However, I was very fortunate to have met my supervisor at the NEB. My supervisor was understanding of people with disabilities and she was very patient with my different learning and working style (that is typically perceived by many as “slow” or “illogical”). From my perspective, as a neuro-diverse individual, I think it is very critical to have at least one mentor, who understands your character and work ethic, especially when you are an employee at a workplace. Because it can result in the success or failure of your GIS career journey.

For people who have received accommodation throughout their academic years; those kind of supports may not necessarily be available when you are out in the working world. Though in recent years, among some big corporations in Canada, there is an emerging workplace movement to promote mental health wellness of employees and to embrace diversity by hiring talents with disabilities or any marginalized identities. Some workplaces also remove the criteria of “a valid driver’s license” if it is something that is not needed for a job position or could be substituted by public transit.

Lindsey: How did you feel about GIS professional network events, if you had attended any in recent years?

Kitty: There are some limitations to participate when you are neither a student nor an employee in the GIS field. It limits your ability to engage in meaningful conversation with the other attendees at a network event. Neuro-diverse people would likely have to overcome the psychological barrier to be at a social event; because it can be mentally draining “to plan” how to network and avoid being discourteous to the social norms. Also, after graduating more than 2 years ago, I am no longer considered a recent graduate. I am now a working adult who does not have the flexibility to be absent from work just to attend a professional network event.    

During the current Covid-19 pandemic, it has been very difficult for many people. I had some unforeseen situations arise and as a result I can’t allocate time to actively follow the GIS community or participate in network events like I was able to before. In spite of the pandemic’s effects, it is fortunate that I have been in good physical health and continued to be able to carry out my personal obligations outside my current job.

Moving forward, current interests and dream job

Lindsey: What other interests have your nurtured or transferable skills developed in recent years after you have stepped aside from GIS professionally?

Kitty: I completed the Landscape Design certificate program at Ryerson University in 2020 (conferred in 2021). I sense the future potential of the horticulture field applying geographical analytical skills into garden designs. I think even small garden or balcony designs matter spatially, as there are greater demands for harmony in urban green spaces and better standards of living. One of the many things I learned from (Spatial) Garden Design is that “everyday living is geographically tied with space, time, people, and their decision-makings.”

Lindsey: What would be your dream GIS or related job, if you have an opportunity to pursue professionally again? Where?

Kitty: If I could do work in a GIS field professionally again, my preferences would be the following (because I currently require some flexibility to accommodate my personal obligations):

  • Work for employers who value diversity of people working in the GIS field, make the technology more accessible and offer inclusive participation in the digital mapping literacy for better community building.
  • Employment stability, developing transferable skills and mental health care for high quality work are very important to me. Therefore, at this time, my preference is to keep my current and stable part-time job while also working for a GIS employer who would be open to hiring me part-time (about 25 to 30 hours weekly).  
  • Some companies I’m interested are: Esri Canada, Avenza Systems Inc., Lucidmap and MapArt Publishing because these companies sell their GIS software or map products, which means many employees likely get to interact with their end-users differently.
  • I would also like to work at a map store since I could be very knowledgeable at selling map products. For example, MAPTOWN (a map store in Calgary). I haven’t yet seen a similar retail store in Toronto.
  • Participating in mapping community engagement projects could be interesting too. Examples in Toronto: Access Now, City Trees, Laneway Project.

Helpful advice for others facing a challenge

Lindsey:  Finally, any advice for other GIS people, particularly those who have a learning disability or identified themselves as neuro-diverse? Studying in a post-secondary school? Entering the workforce as junior?

Kitty: For those who are still in post secondary school: if you are aware or suspect you have a learning impairment or declining mental health wellness, make sure you consult your school’s counselling services. They are professional health practitioners and there to support students’ well-being, including academic accommodations.

Ideally, it would be better if high schools could provide students with their IEP (Individual Education Plan) documents to them. I didn’t have any learning accommodations in university because I was enrolled in the regular university preparatory stream in the Ontario high school system. Therefore, I was never aware of my learning disability. I didn’t thrive academically due to self-confident issues, which later affected my ability to work efficiently as a young adult. 

For those who are experiencing underemployment: if you make an effort to find one, there must be an employer who would appreciate your transferable skill set and values, regardless if you are working in a GIS/geospatial related occupation or not. Your work ethic and soft skills could speak much more than your technical abilities or hard skills. 

Finally, to young adults with learning disabilities: you have to learn and grow with “Openness” from the process of many repetitions, revisions, rejections, and resilience in your academic and prospective career journey.

My wisdom: “When one door closes, another opens”.

Lindsey: Thanks for sharing your junior GIS career experiences with GoGeomatics Canada.

Kitty: Thank-you. It is an honour to be featured in the GoGeomatics Canada magazine.


Sources

Specialisterne Canada, 2021, https://specialisternefoundation.com/autism-neurodiversity/.

Specialisterne Foundation, 2021, https://specialisternefoundation.com/autism-neurodiversity/.

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