Brown Like Me? Pretty Rare in OT.

Silent Diversity
Image: Silent Diversity by DryHundredFear

Many people have asked this question: How diverse is occupational therapy as a profession?

In my own experience, I had to look no further than the slideshow for the Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lectureship at the 2015 AOTA Conference to find an answer.

After spending several minutes watching the slides tick by, I began to notice a trend.


I kept waiting for the photos on the slides to change as I watched and the year 2015 approached, but from 1955 onward I saw only 4 or 5 people who didn’t fit the White woman mold. In the SIXTY YEARS that the Slagle lectureship has existed, there have been a handful of men and only one African American woman who have spoken. Since 1969, when Dr. Lela Llorens, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, delivered her speech, there has not been a single Slagle lecturer who looks like me.

I know, I know. There are the very obvious “You can’t judge a book by its cover!” and “There’s more to diversity than skin color!” arguments to be made here, and they are certainly valid! I’m sure that each of these lecturers had merits and achievements that warranted their selection, and I won’t pretend to know each one’s ethnicity or cultural background. However, while those faces in the slideshow certainly seemed to be an accurate reflection of the profession’s demographics (86.2% AOTA Members are Caucasian according to a 2006 Workforce study), I don’t believe they are an accurate reflection of the wonderful diversity of the profession’s many innovators and influencers.

I find it extremely hard to believe that in the nearly 100 years since OT was officially established as a profession only White women have “creatively contributed to the development of the body of knowledge of the profession through research, education, and/or clinical practice,” which are the requirements to become a Slagle Lecturer. Honestly, I can’t pretend that watching a 10-minute slide show celebrating the biggest thinkers, visionaries, and leaders in my profession and seeing only one person of color didn’t hurt – for me, it was really very discouraging.

I’m sure this lack of diversity wasn’t intentional, and many AOTA leaders have been instrumental in developing or supporting initiatives to promote increased professional diversity. However, it may be time to take a closer look at the unspoken message about the value of diversity the profession is sending to students and members with its speaker selections and the makeup of its leadership committees.

For example, another place in which a similar lack of diversity a problem is in the AOTA Special Interest Section leadership. As I perused this page to learn more about the SIS internship program leaders, I found myself viewing another set of photos of primarily White women. Again, let me be clear in saying that this is not a comment on the qualifications of any of these leaders or a “call to arms” to start filling every open position at AOTA with the person who looks least likely to get a sunburn. But it is just another very visible indication that within the profession there is a longtime trend that continues to be a very real problem.

This isn’t the first time the lack of diversity in the profession has been acknowledged as an issue, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. In fact, concerns about decreasing professional diversity was one of the main issues raised at the dialogue about the potential transition to the OTD as the profession’s single point of entry with the AOTA Board of Directors. In all fairness, there is really no way to tell what the impact of such a decision would be, but I think it says a lot that many practitioners of varied backgrounds raised this question, and I hope that our leadership (and members!) will take steps to continue pushing for a more diverse profession today and in the future, whatever the outcome of that particular discussion. (For more information on diversity and the OTD, check out the table in the middle of the page HERE).

And though professional diversity is clearly an issue, it is hard to know how to address it because it is nearly impossible to know where the true heart of the problem lies. Are people of color simply not electing to be in leadership positions? Do they feel alienated or unwelcome in a profession whose leadership consists primarily of people who they feel may not value their perspectives? Is it a recruitment issue? These are all questions I’ve wondered about, and I’m hopeful that there will be more research into this issue in the future to help inform the profession’s next moves in this area.

So how am I dealing with all of the frustration that I feel in regard to this issue? Because I tend to be a very proactive person, I have actively sought out role models of color who can help me navigate these and other professional issues as well as serving as examples of how I can achieve my goals and do great things even if I don’t look like the “average” OT (i.e. a youthful White woman). I’ve also participated in several events to support my school’s efforts to promote the profession to a more diverse audience.

At this point, you might be saying “Why not join a group like the National Black Occupational Therapy Caucus?” Believe me, I considered it! But I don’t see the point in joining a group that doesn’t offer me opportunities for growth and doesn’t have an active presence that I can be a part of. It’s great that there are active NBOTC chapters in several areas, but none of them are near me, and I just can’t justify sending my hard-earned money off to an organization that seems to be a ghost of what it once was (although it may be in a building stage at the moment, I’m not really sure).

In order to have a diverse profession, you need diverse members. Again, there is clearly more encompassed by the term “diversity” than just skin color – there is diversity of socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identification, language…more things than I can even begin to count. And having practitioners with more diverse ethnic, linguistic, geographic, cultural, and other backgrounds will not only enliven and enrich the professional dialogue, but improve client experiences as therapists will be better able to serve the increasingly diverse clientele who access OT services. I am hopeful that more and more people of diverse backgrounds will become OTs, and I have faith that we are on the way to fulfilling the 2017 Centennial Vision of OT as a “…diverse workforce meeting society’s occupational needs,” although we are not there yet.

I have high hopes for my career in OT – I want to make a difference in the lives of my clients as well as the profession as a whole, and I’m not going to let some unintentionally offensive slide show tell me I can’t. But if I’m being honest, there are some days when I still have to stop and wonder whether or not my big hair and brown skin will make the ladder to the top just a little bit harder to climb.

I'm hopeful that our profession will continue working to make the celebration of diversity more than just a slogan on a Conference ribbon.
I’m hopeful that our profession will continue working to make the celebration of diversity more than just a slogan on a Conference ribbon.

Additional Information

Transcripts of all Eleanor Clark Slagle Lectures since 1955.

Articles about professional diversity:

Other opinions on diversity in the profession:

Initiatives and Organizations Supporting Diversity in Occupational Therapy

13 thoughts on “Brown Like Me? Pretty Rare in OT.

  1. Christopher J. Alterio, Dr.OT, OTR May 4, 2015 / 3:00 pm

    Great post, Lauren – and important for everyone to think about. I agree that diversity does not automatically solve problems, but I think that it brings with it an increased likelihood of thought diversity – and in my opinion that is what is lacking most. I blogged about this lack of thought diversity and how too much of our professional thinking is based on white middle class philosophizing in this post:

    I hope that you continue to spend time thinking out loud about this and being a voice to help promote a change in thinking.


    • lej1123 May 5, 2015 / 10:32 am

      Thanks for commenting! I read your comment while I was with my significant other (who is White), and it led to a very thought-provoking conversation that indicated the same lack of “thought diversity” that you wrote about. Basically, after I explained to him about the lack of diversity in the slide show, he simply said, “As a white male — or a white person, even — I can guarantee you that the person who made that slide show didn’t even notice it. It’s just not something we really think about.”

      While this statement was a little hard to hear, it does point to the reasons why we so desperately need to keep diversity issues at the forefront of our professional discussions and make more active efforts to change. Because if so few people in our leadership even have these ideas about diversity in mind as they make decisions, I think that really poses a great risk to the future of the profession.

      As always, I appreciate your support and the dialogue you generate!

  2. Trey May 4, 2015 / 7:56 pm

    This post REALLY resonated with me, particularly how you felt while watching the Slagle Lecture slideshow! There are definitely moments–not only during conference, but on fieldwork, and amongst my peers–where I am acutely aware of my race/gender and how it impacts my experience as a student and as a future clinician. But I’m encouraged that there’ll be opportunities for those who look like us to impact the profession in a positive way!

    Thank you so much for writing this. It’s always comforting to know that there’s someone out there who feels the same way as you!

    • lej1123 May 8, 2015 / 1:52 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Trey! I’m glad you took something away from this post, even if it was just the knowledge that you’re not alone in feeling “alone” in our profession! I understand how you feel…sometimes I look around and get a little discouraged about what I see in my classroom or at professional events like Conference. However, I’m also seeing more diversity groups at AOTA, more male OTs and things like the “brOT Movement” (which you might want to check out if increasing gender diversity in the profession is of interest to you), and it definitely gives me hope for the future of the profession!

  3. renee May 4, 2015 / 8:25 pm

    Hi Lauren!
    thanks for posting this. I am an Indian-American occupational therapist, with 8 years in the field. Growing up on the east coast, attending NYU for my graduate program, I came across many people in my class who were “brown like me” (Guyanese, Black, West Indian, East Indian, etc.). I would say my class was very diverse which included many Jewish students. I totally agree with what you’ve noticed, because I notice it too in the field, now that I live in the Midwest. Living in the Midwest (Chicago), the only “minorities” I’ve come across are Asian (Korean, Indian, Filipino), as well as many Caucasian co-workers/friends in OT. I am the only brown person in my company!! I know its crazy.

    I think its LOCATION and also think its a lack of awareness of occupational therapy, in general. A lot of students (brown or otherwise) tend to gear towards fields such as nursing and never even know about OT till they start working or interning at hospitals. I think we as OTs should be mentors to people in our communities and make others aware of our awesome profession. Thanks again for your post! I found it through Abbey’s blog.
    Here’s to awareness of OT and celebrating diversity!

    • lej1123 May 8, 2015 / 1:58 pm

      I agree with you Renee, location does seem to have a lot to do with whether or not you feel like you are working in a diverse profession. I’m sure that going from a place like NYC to the Midwest — even to a big city like Chicago — was a bit of a culture shock! I also agree that lack of awareness about the profession means that students of diverse backgrounds are passing it by, and that’s why I am involved in many events at my school to increase awareness of OT among minority and underrepresented groups.

      I encourage you to reach out to local schools, local OT programs, or community groups to get involved with efforts to educate or mentor more minority students about OT and increase awareness if this is something you are passionate about, and The Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity’s “Recruitment Toolkit” has several great resources to help make this happen! Check it out here:

  4. Sarah May 5, 2015 / 7:19 pm

    I am also sad for our patients! They are missing out on the unique insights and experinences that a more diverse workforce could potentially offer.

    • lej1123 May 8, 2015 / 1:59 pm

      So true! But hopefully we as a profession are on the way to improving the therapeutic experience for clients from a wide variety of backgrounds!

  5. Karen Smith May 6, 2015 / 10:05 am

    Thank your for your thoughtful post, Lauren. One of my roles as an AOTA staff member is liaison to the Multicultural, Diversity, and Inclusion (MDI) groups, which are independent groups, but are recognized by AOTA and have provided input to AOTA on diversity and cultural competence issues. I would encourage you and any student, practitioner, educator, researcher, or other role to join the MDI group that reflects your heritage or interests. The groups are looking for additional members and are a supportive network advancing the needs and contributions of diverse members and a diverse profession.

    In terms of AOTA, I hope you are aware of COOL where members can identify their volunteer interests and also the Emerging Leaders program. Please consider submitting your application to the Emerging Leaders program if you are in your last year of school or 1st 5 years of practice

    Thanks for listing the resources below and I look forward to seeing your name an AOTA committee roster in the future!

    • lej1123 May 8, 2015 / 2:04 pm

      Thank you for your informative comment, Karen! I am in fact registered in the COOL database, and I am also involved in AOTA as an SIS Intern and in my state organization as a social media team member!

      And although I am not yet eligible to apply for the Emerging Leaders program (one more year!) I appreciate your encouragement. In a couple years, I hope to see my name on an AOTA committee roster as well! Just gotta get through that little thing called OT school first, lol.

  6. Karen May 8, 2015 / 2:52 pm

    Lauren, you continue to astound me. Great post, great thoughts, great ideas. You are definitely going to be a Centennial Vision leader and then some…a lot of some, actually. 🙂

    • lej1123 May 8, 2015 / 3:01 pm

      Thanks Karen, I appreciate your support! And I’m interested to see what this “some” will be! 😀 lol

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