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Occupational Therapy Education: Impact on the Ableism of Students

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

Occupational therapists work with people with disabilities to help with daily living skills, and develop supports and environmental interventions to promote quality of life. Occupational therapists’ understandings of, and attitudes towards, disability can influence how they work with people with disabilities, and people with disabilities’ outcomes. As such, occupational therapy education programs can play a key role in shaping future occupational therapists’ attitudes towards people with disabilities.

For these reasons, the aim of this study was to explore how occupational therapy students’ explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) disability attitudes changed throughout their graduate education. To do so, we examined the disability attitudes of 67 occupational therapy students from 3 graduate programs every year of their graduate education.

Our study found that while occupational therapy students’ explicit attitudes became more favorable throughout their education, there was not a significant change in their implicit attitudes – their implicit ableism did not reduce. In fact, by the time the students graduated, the overwhelming majority (67.9%) had negative implicit attitudes about disability (see figure).

Implicit Attitudes of Occupational Therapy Students At Graduation

Figure showing the implicit disability attitudes of students at graduation. 68% preferred nondisabled people, 9.5% preferred people with disabilities, and 22.6% had no preference

“Occupational therapy education programs have an important role to play in terms of intervening to minimize prejudicial attitudes and assumptions about disability and, in the process, address students’ ableist thinking… To reduce biases among occupational therapy practitioners, it is necessary to assess how organizational policies and procedures might reinforce or reduce prejudices, including appraisal of occupational therapy educational programs’ impact on their students’ attitudes.” (Friedman & VanPuymbrouck, 2021, pp. 6-8)

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C., & VanPuymbrouck, L. (2021). Impact of occupational therapy education on students’ disability attitudes: A longitudinal study. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 75(4).