In this season of crazy political antics, fierce debates about our nation’s future, and the approaching election, it can be difficult to understand why you as an OT student or practitioner should get involved in any sort of political activity. Trust me, I get it! After over a year of listening to politicians tearing each other apart and being forced to hear the political opinions of virtually every person I’ve come into contact with, I want to get as far away from all the madness as I possibly can. However, in my past two years as an OT student and (soon to be) new practitioner, I’ve learned that you can’t spell politics without OT.
Before OT school, I believed being a “political person” meant being a Young Democrat or College Republican, marching in protests, or volunteering at voter registration drives, for example. I generally understood politics and legislation as complex subjects that were beyond my comprehension, and had pretty much resigned myself to simply voting each year and being a passive victim of whatever happened afterward. Essentially, I believed that politics was something that existed “out there,” but not something I was able to participate in or influence.
However, after reflecting on my graduate education and professional development experiences over the past two years I realized that at some point along the way I had become a “political person.” This realization was shocking at first, but then it occurred to me that my experiences participating in formal advocacy events like AOTA’s annual Hill Day, working for my state OT association, and treating clients all represented my engagement in the political process – even though I wasn’t a lobbyist, campaign worker, or public official. It took me a while, but I now understand each of these seemingly unrelated activities as different forms of political engagement that helped deepen my awareness of occupational therapists’ role as advocates for clients, practitioners, and the profession.
Read on to find out more about how my experiences as an OT student and professional brought about this change, and how becoming “political” can make you a better clinician.
OT = Advocacy
According to the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework (OTPF), advocacy is occupational therapy. It is defined in the OTPF as:
Efforts directed toward promoting occupational justice and empowering clients to seek and obtain resources to fully participate in their daily life occupations. Efforts undertaken by the practitioner are considered advocacy, and those undertaken by the client are considered self-advocacy and can be promoted and supported by the practitioner” (Occupational Therapy Practice Framework, 3rd Ed., p. S41).
Advocacy is also listed as an intervention strategy, alongside the likes of more “familiar” strategies as education/training and therapeutic use of occupations.
Although the OTPF mainly describes OT advocacy as supporting improved access or outcomes for clients with disabilities, it is important to recognize the role OT/As can play in advocating for changes that benefit the profession as a whole as well.
Participating in the Political Process
Throughout my time as an OT student and in various professional roles as my state OT association’s social media manager and Fieldwork II student, I have been engaged in the political process both directly and indirectly.
For example, during AOTA’s Hill Day I spoke directly with my state representatives’ staff members to educate them about our profession and why we needed their support or sponsorship for various bills. It was definitely a nerve-racking experience at first, but after emerging from those intimidating offices unscathed, I was better equipped to apply the same skills in academic and clinical settings at home. It turns out that advocating for various bills on the Hill helped me develop communication and public speaking skills I could use to advocate for student needs on campus and give persuasive presentations during my fieldwork back in North Carolina!
In other settings, I was not as directly involved with the political process but it was a part of my daily work nonetheless. As the NCOTA social media manager, I followed political happenings in North Carolina and shared relevant articles and information with thousands of viewers on Facebook. I published posts related to new laws and their potential impact on OT practitioners, calls to action for practitioners to contact their representatives regarding particular pieces of policy, and advocacy resources like the AOTA Legislative Action Center. Additionally, as a fieldwork student working with older adults I was able to observe the effects of Medicare as it impacted patient access to DME and OT services, and became even more motivated to continue advocating for changes that will make healthcare services and devices more affordable and accessible to patients in need.
The table below summarizes the various types of professional activities I have engaged in, and their relationship to political advocacy.
|Activity||Relationship to Political Advocacy|
|Participation in AOTA Hill Day||
|Managing social media for NC OT Association||
|Treating clients in a variety of settings as a Fieldwork II student||
Becoming a Political Person: Before and After
The following scenarios describe how I saw the political process prior to starting OT school, and how my experiences helped increase my awareness of how active engagement in political activities benefits clients, colleagues, and the profession as a whole.
Before OT School: I viewed policy as something I was simply affected by, not something I had the power to change or get involved in.
After Graduating: I am now an active participant in the political process. I send letters or talk with legislators directly during Hill Day events, follow the news carefully to monitor new legislation’s effects on OT practice and healthcare policy, and work with local and national organizations to advocate for changes that will benefit OT clients, students, and clinicians. I know that my voice matters, and I am determined to be heard.
Before: My votes and interests were focused on my needs.
After: Although I am still highly concerned about how various political leaders and decisions will affect me as an individual, I now have an increased interest in making decisions based on their impact on future clients and the future of our profession. For example, although I have already completed my graduate program, I monitor legislature related to decreasing college student debt, loan forgiveness programs for health professionals, and new practice areas for OTs. Even I may not necessarily benefit directly from programs implemented in the future, I view it as my professional duty to support access to OT for the students and clients of tomorrow.
Before: I believed speaking to politicians was something best left to lobbyists, angry mobs, and other politicians.
After: Two years ago, I was highly intimidated by the thought of approaching my representatives to have a conversation about occupational therapy, but after participating in two Hill Day events, I now feel empowered. I have walked across Capitol Hill, shaken my representative’s hand, and made a case for why we need his support for this bill or that initiative. I now know that maintaining an open line of communication with local, state, and national political leaders is crucial for our clients and the future of our profession.
Before: Being a part of political advocacy groups or events was of no interest to me.
After: I now understand that involvement in the political sphere is crucial to protecting and advancing our clients and our profession. Reading about OT professionals’ involvement in the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions was fascinating, and something I’m logging away as a potential advocacy opportunity in the future! In the future, I plan to continue actively seeking ways to advocate and participate in the political process as an OT professional.
Before: I had no idea how to effectively communicate with politicians, legislators, or policymakers to bring about results or garner support for a particular bill or cause.
After: I have a good understanding of how to talk to policymakers using methods that get results – i.e. using personal stories, discussing funding, and identifying sources of support (…and frequently using the word “bipartisan”). This knowledge was not only helpful as I communicated with legislators in years past as a student, but it will continue to benefit me as I move into the workplace and the need for effective advocacy continues.
Through all of my experiences over the past two years, I have been transformed from a passive, almost apathetic bystander to an active, educated participant in the political process. It was a subtle shift, but with not-so-subtle results that ultimately made me a stronger student and better clinician.
No matter how you feel about our current political climate or on which side of the aisle you stand, it is your duty as an OT professional to advocate for a better future for your clients and colleagues. Whether this means accepting a formal role in a local political organization or simply sending a letter to your representatives, there are many ways you can be a change agent who helps make a difference.
Although the changes you advocate for may not take effect immediately or work smoothly at the start, it is crucial that OT students and practitioners continue to be actively engaged in their local, state, and national political processes.
In the past two years I have learned that my voice matters, and that I can make my voice heard. I hope that any OT/A student or practitioner reading this will step away with a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to make a difference through their words and actions, and feel more prepared to make a valuable contribution to the political happenings in their area or across the country.
How To Get Involved (Whether You’re a Political Person or Not)
- Read the article titled “Congress’s August Recess: Meet Lawmakers, Advocate for OT” by Heather Parsons, AOTA’s Director of Legislative Advocacy, in the August 8, 2016 OT Practice magazine to learn more about being an everyday advocate for OT.
- Take part in local or national “Hill Day” events to talk directly with your representatives about the issues that matter.
- Send a letter, make a phone call, or pay a visit to your local political leaders to share your experiences and advocate for change.
- Educate yourself on the issues. You can’t advocate if you don’t understand what’s going on; follow health and disability related legislative issues on sites like Disability Scoop to stay in the loop. And if you’re too busy to check the sites, simply sign up for a newsletter!
- Donate to AOTPAC. Any amount helps support their advocacy efforts related to occupational therapy.
- Become a member of your state OT association. Typically a portion of your membership fee will go to supporting your state’s lobbyists, the people who advocate on your behalf and protect your practice every day!
- Click here to see more ideas about how to get involved!