Occupational Therapy and Racial Injustice

Occupational therapy and racial injustice

To my fellow OT professionals:

Our mission is to think holistically about the health of our patients, so we can guide them through the healing process. 

On some level, we are accustomed to thinking about how environments and societal factors affect patients’ overall health. But, when it comes to understanding and confronting how racism and racial injustices are impacting our patients, we have much work to do.

The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor (along with many other people of color) have continued to underscore the reality that we have a societal sickness that must be confronted.

Racial injustice is hurting our patients—and, as a predominantly white, female, and middle-class profession, we have fallen short in taking action. 

We have not done enough to understand and confront our own internal biases. 

We have not done enough to diversify our profession, nor the voices within it. 

We have been too complicit in working within larger health systems that perpetuate racial disparities.

And, because of this, we have not been able to fulfill our mission of providing the highest level of care and healing to our patients.

There is much healing and change that needs to happen. 

Yet, I believe we are uniquely equipped to confront the chronic condition of racism. After all, helping people heal and change is our life’s work. And, the same skills we use with our patients uniquely position us to challenge our innate biases, improve our profession, and reimagine our society.

As occupational therapists, we know that change often begins at the person-level. We all have implicit biases, and we owe it to our patients, our profession, and ourselves to recognize and address them. We humans are hard-wired to make quick judgments, so we need to take time to slow down, look each patient in the eyes, and truly listen. By doing so, we can fully process the complexity of every life before us, and we can truly feel the weight of guiding patients toward better health.

That said, we also know that looking at the person-level is not enough. We are skilled at thinking about how different environments can either set people up for success or actively work against them. When confronting racism, this is where we must turn a critical eye to our organizations and policies, so we can work to dismantle unjust systems and build better ones. We’ve probably all experienced moments where we feel compelled to advocate for our patients on a larger level, and now is the time to step into the arena and fight for needed changes.

Finally, we know that the path to change and healing is much easier to navigate when you have people to accompany you.

May we do this transformational work together as an occupational therapy profession.

May we coordinate with community groups and other professionals who are walking this same road.

May we have challenging conversations with our patients, family members, coworkers, managers, and even our CEOs.

May we work together to fix what has been broken and unjust for far too long.

Together, may we see the problems more clearly (in ourselves and in our systems) and do the work that is required to approach health holistically. Only then can we truly partner with each and every patient to fulfill what we aspire to do as occupational therapy professionals: maximize health, well-being, and quality of life for all people. 

– Sarah Lyon, OT/L, Owner of OT Potential

Thank you to the OT Potential team and Brandy Archie, OTD, OTR/L, Director at AccessAble Living for your help crafting this post.

Resources for understanding how racial injustice impacts health

Things you can do to support diversity and racial justice within occupational therapy

4 replies on “Occupational Therapy and Racial Injustice”

Thank you Sarah for challenging me on a personal level and a professional level. I am working each day to understand systemic racism and striving to do better personally. Thanks for the resources.

Sarah, I commend you for daring to breach this topic ! Though, as an African-American male, who also works in the OT profession, I think the most benefit is derived when this topic is discussed without in being on the feed of every major news channel or newspaper. Then, it’s NOT just the topic of the month, year, etc… that eventually fades into obscurity ! If you doubt my point, look up "Rodney King videotaped beating", I think 1992.

I have dealt with racism on the job, both from patients and OT staff. It certainly has had an impact and continues to impact my daily, personal, social and professional life and well being!!!

God bless you, Sarah, for ANY POSITIVITY and LIGHT you can bring to the world. Especially, to the OT profession !!!

BUT, be forewarned, that IF you approach this from an open and honest angle, seeking real change, even some equity, some of (hopefully, not many) of your friends, colleagues, even family, will denounce, attack, reject or IGNORE you!!!

May God grant you the wisdom, knowledge and discernment, to successfully navigate this challenge!!! African-American people can NEVER EVEN HOPE to have a world, a country, a neighborhood, even an elementary classroom, free of racism, without the help of kind, caring, compassionate whites, joining in this most difficult struggle !!! To heal racism, one must CONFRONT IT and as appropriate, ADMIT to it’s place in one’s life !!! Some, likely, many whites, NEVER get past this starting point. Many whites speak and write of blacks (older term used) having decades of affirmative action and other benefits, that whites don’t have, basically implying, that with ALL these "unfair" advantages that blacks receive, they are still STUCK at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder!!! YET, these SAME whites (or their great grandparents, grandparents or parents) OFTEN FAIL to mention, that for hundreds of years, America was built of the blacks of black slaves !!! That’s much more powerful, advantageous and significant than 20-50 years of "affirmative action" !!!

Sarah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go on so long, possibly becoming verbose. I just find it difficult to discuss RACISM, in one or two short paragraphs.

A little about the author of the above prose.

57 years old
I’ve obtained a BA in Anthropology 2009, Cal-State Fullerton, a AA in OT 1999 at Loma Linda University, an AA in Biology 1985. I also completed one year of part-time study at a local law school in 2002. My education outside of the halls of academia and higher education, (the school of life, while black, in America) is much more extensive.

I worked in SNFS, 9 years, hospitals 1-2, outpatient 2.5 years and currently work in the school setting (6 years).

IF I can be of assistance to you, in any way, let me know. Hopefully, at the very least, you found this an interesting read or story of experience.

Blessings, peace and LOVE to you, Sarah.

Anthony S

Hi Anthony!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share! It helps so much to take big concepts like racism and hear personal stories like yours about how it has impacted your daily, personal, social and professional. I will send you an email this weekend about how we can keep this conversation going! I’m so eager to see change in our profession. – Sarah

Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing this as well as the resources. I’ll shoot you an email as I would like to further this discussion. I wrote a piece about racism in healthcare with actionable steps and a request for discussion and no response from several professional groups I’m a part of. I’m curious if people are afraid to be "political" even though this is an issue of humanity or if people aren’t sure where to start so they are just stuck where we’ve been for centuries, in the comforts of our privilege.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *