OT Without Borders

“I’m an occupational therapist…

“I’m an occupational therapist, an obscure profession if there
ever was one. We are few and far between, maybe because
we have chosen to serve people with disabilities. All disabilities.
Not a glamorous endeavour, nor a lucrative one.
And I say serve because we deem that in helping we see
weakness, while in serving we see wholeness. We’ve opted
for wholeness nearly a century ago and have been at odds
with the system ever since. We don’t fix people, you see:
with them, we simply try to find a way to meaning, balance,
and justice. I chose occupational therapy because it
blends science and humanism, intellectual rigour and compassion.”

— Rachel Thibeault (from Occupational Therapists without Borders)

I think the quote above encapsulates why I chose to study OT and my vision of OT’s role in the world. Occupational Therapy Without Borders is a social movement that was started by an OT named Frank Kronenberg, and has since been joined by many other voices from the global OT community who celebrate the role and power of occupation in transforming the lives of people who are marginalized by disability, age, gender, socioeconomic status or other conditions. In his textbooks Occupational Therapy Without Borders (2 volumes), Kronenberg and other OTs discuss the concept of occupational apartheid, which divides the haves and have nots with respect to access to meaningful occupations, and how occupational therapists can help enable affected individuals or communities.

As a current OT student who has also done extensive travelling and volunteering abroad, I found that this ideology seemed to meld those two worlds together. It enlightened my understanding of how I could fit what I had decided to pursue as a career within the larger framework that housed my passion of being a global citizen promoting social justice.

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The largest setback I found after discovering Kronenberg’s ideology however, was that an OT Without Borders program didn’t actually exist in physical form. Sure, some schools had study abroad programs in place, though mine did not. Even the World Federation of Occupational Therapy (WFOT) didn’t offer any specific programs. After much googling, I found a couple pay-a-lot-of-money-to-volunteer type programs that seemed to offer occupational therapy placements abroad, though I wasn’t sure that they would give me the structure, guidance, or knowledge that I was looking for in addition to the high costs. FINALLY, I discovered the NAPA-OT Field School in Antigua, Guatemala where graduate students of anthropology and occupational therapy (and other related areas) come together to promote social justice for Guatemalans through supervised volunteering, research, lectures, and of course Spanish language classes. This was exactly what I had been looking for!! (As an aside I minored in anthropology in college, so bonus!)

I leave in less than 2 weeks and I am super ecstatic. I’ll be in Guatemala for 5 weeks total, 4 of them for the field school. There are 3 specially-focused group research projects that the Field School offers: educational transitions, surgical referral processes, and pediatric nutrition and development. I am going to be working on the pediatric nutrition project which is headed by an OT and addresses the HUGE problem of malnourished children in Guatemala – a staggering almost 50% of children there are malnourished resulting in stunted growth and development.

I hope I will gain some experience and knowledge applying the OT concepts I have learned this past year in such a new and different context and see how OT can be used to enable occupational justice in places and with people who have suffered so much. But more importantly I hope to help the people I work with there, even if it’s on a very small scale.

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2 thoughts on ““I’m an occupational therapist…

  1. Pingback: Apartheid in Guatemala? | OT Without Borders

  2. Makes me realise how big OT is and how we can try to achieve different occupations to turn peoples lives around. Cant wait to qualify, though only 6 months into a 4 year course. Working abroad in different cultures really appeals to me. Promoting social justice for those who have so little is wonderful. Its great how these projects can help via surgery, nutrition and education. Good luck with the project’s and the help you are giving to those less fortunate than ourselves.

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