Occupational Therapy / Social Justice

Diversity Within OT

In school they taught me about the importance of understanding the diversity of the clientele we would be interacting with in the real world. We were being trained to be über self-reflective in order to know our place in this multicultural world and to recognize our own ingrained biases, setting our intentions of readiness to face the big, bad world of “different strokes for different folks.”

In school they also taught me that there is very little diversity within the American occupational therapy workforce itself. I don’t remember the exact statistic, but something around 90% of OTs are white. And most are women. This may (and hopefully will) be changing now as OT becomes more widespread and acknowledged with many more new schools opening their doors, with the BrOT movement, and with the AOTA’s Centennial Vision 2017 of promoting a diverse workforce and whatnot.

This weekend, however, I was reminded of that shocking statistic while meeting with a friend of mine who is a non-white OT student.

She just completed her fieldwork and she regaled me with horrifying stories of not only patients refusing to work with her because of her skin color, but also other therapists actually saying racist things to her as well. Her stories (emphasis on the plurality) to my surprise were not imbued with anger, nor even bitterness. In fact she received these events with calm, dignified, laissez faire acceptance. “That’s just the way it is…I’m used to it…If a patient doesn’t want to work with me, that’s their choice…I know I’m still a good person.” A spirit dampened by words over time.

She told me that she would rather work with children than adults, because “children haven’t learned to discriminate yet.” My heart broke.

Just no. It’s not ok. None of this is ok. It’s not ok for a patient to tell a student she looks like a terrorist, and it’s not ok for the student’s supervisor to agree. It’s not ok that she feels like the only way she can survive is by reluctantly swallowing these pills of tolerance. I can only vicariously glean from her stories what she’s experienced over the course of her lifetime, each experience a small cut in an ever-growing wound.

I know this is only the story of one person, but I know there are others out there with similar stories to share. It saddens me to think that those who are adding to the diversity of the OT workforce have been or are being so abused. Let’s not only promote diversity within OT, but let’s promote compassion and respect for our fellow human beings.  

“All the diversity, all the charm, and all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade.”

– Leo Tolstoy

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4 thoughts on “Diversity Within OT

  1. Pingback: Brown Like Me? Pretty Rare in OT. | Gotta Be OT

  2. Yes! Thank you for this. I am in Australia and it certainly rings true. And may I add that it is generally a very straight and cis-normative field. In uni, several students were uncomfortable with the one tokenistic case of a man who happened to live with a male partner. And it was interesting to see how few thought to include the partner in the intervention plans

  3. I love this blog! Just found it. It’s really great to read a post that acknowledges some of the diversity goals we need to achieve. I’m a black/asian mixed OT student and I definitely worry about feeling alienated because all except one I think of my school’s current OT student team is white and female. Let’s hope we can keep introducing this field as a wonderful and fulfilling possibility to upcoming generations!

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