By Janie Scott
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) wants to take this opportunity to recognize and thank African-American occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants who have contributed to the fabric of our Association and profession. Let us take a moment out of our busy schedules to recognize AOTA members who have been clinicians, educators, advocates, volunteers and leaders. These individuals have supported and encouraged occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles as students and professionals. Their work has benefited the occupational therapy profession.
There are many African-American women that have influenced our profession. This is an attempt to highlight some of their achievements. No slight is meant to those who were not mentioned. Throughout the year, it is my intention, with the assistance of multicultural experts, to identify and present additional occupational therapist and occupational therapy assistants from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds and lifestyles that have and are making contributions to the profession.
Karmen Brown, Assistant Professor and Director of Fieldwork Education at Wayne State University, began her occupational therapy career working first as an occupational therapist on an inpatient psychiatry unit. Her advanced degree in public health provided her with the skills to apply public health concepts to the practice of occupational therapy. A natural progression of her thinking was the realization that occupational therapy’s role in the community is effective in prevention and rehabilitation.
Karmen has served the occupational therapy community through grassroots efforts at the state and national level. Her creative thinking has inspired students and colleagues, which has created new opportunities for occupational therapy across the United States and into Canada. Her innovative approaches and public health background have resulted in student placements in the community, in state legislative offices, and on the factory lines at Daimler-Chrysler Automotive Company, where they offered ergonomic solutions.
Karmen’s commitment to fieldwork and her work on the new Fieldwork Evaluation Assessment Tool are contributions that will benefit students, fieldwork educators, and community settings for years to come.
The occupational therapy career of Wimberly Edwards is long and full. Although currently retired she maintains her interest and involvement in occupational therapy. Wimberly was instrumental in establishing the Black Occupational Therapy Caucus (BOTC) along with cofounder Joyce Lane, who became the first president of the Black Occupational Therapy Caucus. Wimberly has worked in education for the majority of her career. As a volunteer, she championed the development of occupational therapy within the New York Occupational Therapy Association and worked on a number of committees for AOTA including the Commission on Education Steering Committee. She served as chairperson of the Professional Program Director’s Council.
The outcomes of Wimberly’s involvement with the state and national Black Occupational Therapy Caucus are some of her most notable achievements. Her efforts helped to provide African-American occupational therapists with a sense of belonging and support. She also takes pride in having been the coordinator of the Professional Occupational Therapy Program at York College of the City University of New York, a program that positively contributed to the number of racially and ethnically diverse students to the profession.
Cindy Hughes Harris, Dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences at the Florida A & M University has demonstrated her commitment to the profession and Association for many years. Cindy’s first volunteer position was as a member of AOTA’s PATRA (The Professional and Technical Role Analysis Project). Her volunteer roles have included being chairperson for the Mental Health Special Interest Section and the Commission on Education. Cindy is currently AOTA’s Vice President and Chairperson for the Ad Hoc Committee on Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity in Occupational Therapy.
When pressed to identify her contributions to the profession, the Association, and African-American occupational therapists, Cindy replied: "Helping minority and majority students gain a respect for multiculturalism in occupational therapy practice, in their interpersonal relationships, and in all aspects of their jobs." In Cindy's volunteer efforts and her work as an educator, this philosophy been evident in her sense of fairness towards all individuals irregardless of their racial or ethnic background or lifestyle.
Shirley Jackson, Associate Professor, Occupational Therapy Howard University, noted that her first AOTA volunteer position was in the early 1980’s as part of a three-member task force to study minority issues in the profession and determine how best to address these issues. As Chairperson of one of AOTA’s Multicultural Task Force, Shirley’s contributions laid the foundation for the Association’s commitment to interweaving multicultural threads into the fabric of our profession and the establishment of the Minority Affairs Program.
Shirley's commitment and dedication to the profession continue. She is a District of Columbia’s representative to AOTA's Representative Assembly and continues to be active on AOTA committees.
When asked about her notable contributions to the profession and AOTA, Shirley identified her roles as leader, mentor and administrator in occupational therapy education. Her ability to affect the forward movement of the Association through her work with the Multicultural Task Force and the Representative Assembly has contributed to her personal growth and to the lives of others.
Penny Kyler, Public Health Analyst, Genetics Services Branch, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Penny’s first AOTA volunteer experience was as a student, when she became involved in the American Student Committee for Occupational Therapy (ASCOTA) and was ultimately elected president.
To date, Penny’s most notable contributions occurred during her tenure as AOTA's first Ethics Program Manager. Penny's goal was to educate members about the importance of ethics and ethical behavior in education, practice and research.
As a black occupational therapist, she continues to articulate the need for ethnic diversity in the profession and serves as a mentor and role model. Penny also serves as an unofficial advisor to AOTA’s Commission on Standards and Ethics.
Another prominent African-American leader within the profession and Association, Lela Lorens has had an impact on many individuals. Her list of achievements is lengthy and spans decades of commitment to education and service in her previous roles as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Eleanor Clark Slagle Lecturer, mentor, and role model.
Lela's first volunteer position with AOTA was her service on a clinical advisory committee to the consultant for occupational therapy in psychiatry. Lela was also involved in a project that was supported by a vocational rehabilitation group related to occupational therapy.
Nearly 50 years in occupational therapy practice has offered Lela and the profession a wealth of experiences and opportunities. She recalled a situation that occurred in 1961 when she was involved in an AOTA-sponsored student function. Due to the segregation rules in the state, Lela was prohibited from sitting in the same room with the white occupational therapy students. As a result, AOTA responded by developing a policy that would forever support nondiscrimination.
Later the Black Occupational Therapy Caucus (BOTC) helped Lela and other African-American occupational therapists and students to cope with discrimination policies encountered in fieldwork, clinical and educational settings. Lela notes: "One of the greatest values of the BOTC was to educate some of the people in leadership positions at AOTA." This group and others like them offer individuals training opportunities that ultimately enable them to become Association leaders. Their work in turn has benefited individual members and AOTA.
Lela’s involvement and dedication to occupational therapy continues. She reviews research proposals and papers for the American Occupational Therapy Foundation and reviews manuscripts for Occupational Therapy in Mental Health. Students continue to benefit from her knowledge and experience through her adjunct position at the University of Southern California where she is also the coordinator of an advisory board for their clinical doctorate program.
When asked to describe her most significant contributions to occupational therapy and the Association, Lela reflected on the evolution of her developmental frame of reference—which continues to be taught in the classroom. This work culminated in Facilitating Growth and Development, the foundation of her 1969 Eleanor Clark Slagle lecture.
Eloise Strand was the first African-American female to hold the posts of Colonel and Chief of the Army Medical Specialist Corp. As a volunteer, Eloise served as president of the District of Columbia Occupational Therapy Association and later was elected to serve 2 terms in AOTA’s Representative Assembly. Her advocacy and sensitivity to multicultural issues led her to a previous position as AOTA’s International Program Manager.
Eloise currently volunteers for Montgomery Hospice Society and the Montgomery County Humane Society. She maintains an active involvement with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Howard University’s Occupational Therapy Department’s Admission Committee regularly benefits from her participation.
When encouraged to reflect on her lengthy career in occupational therapy and her contributions, Eloise said: "Because I had the opportunity and took advantage of opportunity, I was not hampered by racism. I was allowed to be a role model."
Shirley Wells has built a national reputation for her advocacy related to multicultural and diversity issues and inclusion in education, practice and research. Shirley is currently a faculty member in the occupational therapy program at Pam American University and maintains a private practice. She continues to contribute to the Association and profession through her roles as Chairperson of the Commission of Standards and Ethics (SEC) and member of AOTA’s Board of Directors.
These are just some of the stories of influential African-American occupational therapists who lead and support the profession and Association. To all who have and will serve as educators, mentors and advocates for cultural awareness and sensitivity in occupational therapy, we thank you.
Janie B. Scott, MA, OTR/L, FAOTA. Former AOTA ethics officer and liaison for multicultural issues.
Authors Note: Information in this article was derived from personal interviews, Janet DeLany’s thesis in adult education: African-American Women in a Predominately Caucasian Female Profession: Learning Paths to Predominance. (1999) and Newsline: Newsletter of the National Black Occupational Therapy Caucus.18: 2, Aug./Sept. 1999.