Transforming Ideas Into Action

Occupational therapy students address inequality and societal issues through summer project.

Students traditionally take a clinical leadership course in their final summer semester of Jefferson’s master of science in occupational therapy program. As part of this class, students participate in the “Hill Day” advocacy assignment where they meet with congressional staff members in small groups in Washington, D.C., to advocate for constituent access to occupational therapy services.

Students research voting records, committee membership, leadership activities and bills introduced/supported in the House of Representatives and Senate. They tailor their message to the elected official’s areas of influence and interest, and following this transformative assignment where they discuss issues such as mental health parity and telehealth permanence, students often feel empowered to create change.

While students prepared for the learning activity this year, the country entered unprecedented social upheaval in response to the televised murder of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis. People were protesting and rallying around the Black Lives Matter movement to end police brutality and the nation’s deep institutional racism.

Protests following the death of George Floyd prompted a new advocacy-focused project.

The week after the Philadelphia protests, students requested that I eliminate the Hill Day assignment because “it doesn’t seem so important anymore.” They wondered, “Who in Washington would want to talk to students in light of what’s happening in the streets across the country?”

Words no longer suffice. The occupational therapy students wanted action.

Taking their feedback to heart, I developed an alternate assignment to meet their needs, the times and the learning objectives. With the new group project, students identified societal issues that negatively impact health and people’s engagement and participation in meaningful occupations. They examined the issues from an occupational therapy and occupational justice lens and created proposals for a population-based program to address the societal issues.

This required students to process how they felt about current events; how social determinants of health (SDOH) impact this issue; the type of occupational injustices created as a result of the SDOH; how this exists within occupational therapy domains of concern and influence; and how occupational therapy intervention can positively impact health of the population.

Students identified societal issues that negatively impact health and people’s engagement and participation in meaningful occupations.

Students also needed to identify community leaders, influencers and representatives as collaborators to ensure the success of their proposed program.

These requirements called for a higher level of critical thinking and analysis than the original Hill Day assignment, and I was incredibly impressed by the thoughtfulness of their concepts.

For example, the proposed community story share event, “If Walls Could Talk,” addresses the impact of people with disabilities living in neighborhoods with high levels of policing on their participation in community life. The event brings together community members, including police and city officials, to discuss the intersection of having a disability and living in a highly policed area. The project empowers people with disabilities to advocate for their communities, and all participants receive education and training on the lived experience of disability, diversity, equity and inclusion.

The project empowers people with disabilities to advocate for their communities.

In another phase of this project, students proposed a mural workshop where community participants work alongside local artists to create a design that reflects their story and vision of a safe and inclusive community. Occupational therapists assess participants’ levels of ability and adaptive equipment needed to participate in the mural painting, and community members receive training on a “paint-by-number” approach. The murals then be installed at libraries, schools and other municipal buildings for community members to view. This approach reinforces the diversity of community members. QR codes incorporated into the mural take viewers to a podcast recording of participants’ shared stories in their own voice.

What impressed me the most about this alternate assignment is that it met the course learning objectives for advocacy and demonstrated the students’ integration of knowledge and understanding of the professions’ role in creating equity and justice for all community members. It also showed how occupational therapy plays a part in the larger vision of health promotion and healthy communities.

Stephen B. Kern, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, is professor and director of Jefferson’s master of science in occupational therapy program on the Center City campus.

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