OT and Disability Rights
I asked Ravi to write a piece for my blog as I thought it would be interesting, considering his historical perspective of OT. We've been corresponding since I first started this blog in 2007. Thank you, Ravi, for taking the time to write this. 🙂
My background with Occupational Therapy is rather idiosyncratic. Although born with spina bifida and requiring crutches and leg braces to ambulate, I had no surgeries after age 11. Raised by a mother who was a paediatrician and a father who was an engineer, we did not spend much time in hospitals or medical clinics in my childhood. And so when I acquired a disability rights consciousness as an undergraduate and in law school, I assumed that occupational therapists were more or less the same as physicians or PTs: i.e. pain inflicting authoritarians who require crips to strip on command and uncritically follow orders. I can distinctly recall going to a movie in the 1990s that was being shown on campus in a space that was later devoted to an OT conference and wanting to tell off all the arriving OTs about the social model, i.e. the proposition that it is structural barriers that are at the root of the problems faced by people with disabilities.
Some years later, when I was doing my doctoral studies, I met some OT students who were members of an accessibility committee on which I served. I became friends with one and was soon in for a huge shock. I expected her to defend the medical model as I understood it: segregation and all the horrors that accompanied it like sterilization. Much to my surprise, I learned that OT is client centred and the more I learned, the more I became convinced that most OTs work in a paradigm that is not that different from the social model. As a lawyer, the practical dimension of problem solving in OT appealed to me. The purely abstract aspect of disability studies has always been problematic: yet another dissertation about the portrayal of the sex lives of women with disabilities in Jane Austen’s novels is not going to necessarily advance the movement for accessibility for people with disabilities today. As I met more and more occupational therapists during my career as an academic and also as a client, it was also remarkable how virtually all OTs had more or less the same caring personality, i.e. extremely happy like Karen Dobyns but maybe without quite the same degree of eccentricities. Many are as passionate about disability rights and equality for people with disabilities as disability studies scholars.
And yet today I think there remains a deep divide between scholars who identify with disability studies and those who identify with rehabilitation. It does not need to be this way. Each discipline can learn from the other. OT is a deliciously innovative discipline (although I am still waiting for a device that will allow crutch users to get through ice and snow) that can truly benefit from engaging in respectful dialogue with disability studies scholars as equal partners. We need occupational therapists to come to disability studies conferences with an open mind. Even ten OTs who chose to attend the Society for Disability Studies conference in the United States (coming to Orlando June 19-22, 2013) and the Canadian Disability Studies Association conference (coming to Waterloo, Ontario at the end of this month) would make a huge difference, both financially and more importantly in terms of intellectual cross-fertilization. These conferences generally have low registration fees and are open to all. And I would hope OT conferences would make more serious efforts to invite disability studies scholars and advocates to their events. In the short term, even informal meetings over cookies and cake can generate valuable results. The key is to have a dialogue.
Ravi Malhotra is Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Common Law Section, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a disability rights advocate. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org