The 2011 Social Justice Debates in occupational therapy

I wondered this morning how much writing I have done on various OT message boards and I started thinking that an awful lot of my opinions are probably documented all over the Internet. I visited the forums on the AOTA website and found the equivalent of over 40 single spaced pages of my writing! Then I thought it might be interesting to see what motivated me to post on professional forums this year. Here is a summary of one interesting forum conversation:

The Social Justice Debates

Early this year there was a motion to rescind part of newly adopted AOTA ethics statements; the concern was that they unnecessarily referenced social justice concepts and that the existing ethics statements already covered that conceptual material and did so without politically charged terms like 'social justice.' The new ethics documents includes:

Principle 4. Occupational therapy personnel shall provide services in a fair and equitable manner.

Social justice, also called distributive justice, refers to the fair, equitable, and appropriate distribution of resources. The principle of social justice refers broadly to the distribution of all rights and responsibilities in society (Beauchamp & Childress, 2009). In general, the principle of social justice supports the concept of achieving justice in every aspect of society rather than merely the administration of law. The general idea is that individuals and groups should receive fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society. Occupational therapy personnel have a vested interest in addressing unjust inequities that limit opportunities for participation in society (Braveman & Bass-Haugen, 2009). While opinions differ regarding the most ethical approach to addressing distribution of health care resources and reduction of health disparities, the issue of social justice continues to focus on limiting the impact of social inequality on health outcomes.

Occupational therapy personnel shall
A. Uphold the profession’s altruistic responsibilities to help ensure the common good.
B. Take responsibility for educating the public and society about the value of occupational therapy services in promoting health and wellness and reducing the impact of disease and disability.
C. Make every effort to promote activities that benefit the health status of the community.
D. Advocate for just and fair treatment for all patients, clients, employees, and colleagues, and encourage employers and colleagues to abide by the highest standards of social justice and the ethical standards set forth by the occupational therapy profession.
E. Make efforts to advocate for recipients of occupational therapy services to obtain needed services through available means.
F. Provide services that reflect an understanding of how occupational therapy service delivery can be affected by factors such as economic status, age, ethnicity, race, geography, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, culture, and political affiliation.
G. Consider offering pro bono (“for the good”) or reduced-fee occupational therapy services for selected individuals when consistent with guidelines of the employer, third-party payer, and/or government agency.

My own concern was with the statements "to abide by the highest standards of social justice" and "provide services that reflect and understanding of how OT service delivery can be affected by factors such as..." Here the politically co-opted definition and political twist that is taken with the term 'social justice' was challenging because of the associated statements about distributive justice which is politically charged. Additionally, there seems to be a suggestion that there is de facto impact on service delivery because of certain issues like age, ethnicity, race, etc., and many people object to that assertion. There is no doubt that prejudices exist, but it is not correct to state that there is de facto impact.

My concern was also related to how 'social justice' was being defined in the current American political context. I tried to compare worldwide Catholic social justice definitions to American social justice definitions. Context and degree seem to be overarching factors when it comes to definitions of social justice - for example, social justice from the perspective of a person in a developing country must be very different than social justice in the United States (which has incredible wealth and where even those who are very poor have their basic needs met).

Also, a core concept of Catholic social justice is in how it is practiced - no bigger than is necessary and no smaller than is appropriate.

Anyway, what I am saying is that I understand the Catholic position of social justice because it is a world-wide religion and the concept is being applied to a very broad spectrum of human existence.

That is all very different than the way that the term is being used in the United States as a redistributive economic policy.

I don't think that the OT professions needs to avoid issues that are politically charged, but it does not seem unreasonable to have a core value of inclusiveness so that we are not disenfranchising our membership - and there were some people who were uncomfortable with including this language in the ethics documents. I don't believe it is unfair to ask the appropriate contextual question of ''What does social justice really mean in the AOTA documents' and if it is such a core concept to our ethics - then why is it just appearing now?

This really was not a new concept for people who read here - I covered this material in depth previously.

The larger issue I was driving at in the conversations was "what constitutes OT practice and how do ethics aspirations suggest us into practice areas or into practice interventions that are beyond our mainstream." In many ways that makes them beyond pragmatic use to many practitioners.

I think that people can use their OT skills in many ways - but that does not necessarily make the interventions occupational therapy - even though some people are calling it that or perhaps want it to be.

I have no objection to giving recognition or praise to efforts that further people's health and participation - even when those efforts are informed by occupational science and are not falling within the mainstream of occupational therapy practice.

My concern is that sometimes it seems like we spend a lot of time in this profession playing in the stratosphere. Lofty ideals are fun, but the atmosphere is pretty thin - and sometimes it is nice to get your feet planted back on the ground again.

I believe that we will serve our profession best if our ideals and ethical aspirations have application to the everyday concerns of practitioners. If our ideals and ethics only help us populate an academic playground to see how many different ways we can apply our concepts then I fear that we will have created a great academic discipline - but one that has very little traction in everyday practice.

As a bottom line concern, AOTA ethics documents are included in some state license laws. That means that failure to abide by generic aspirational and potentially vague language about social justice in ethics documents might cause someone to be in jeopardy with their state license. That's not so good.

I did not believe that there was a need to include ambiguous social justice terminology to maintain our consistency of belief that people who have disabilities should receive services. The proposed motion to remove the politically charged terminology rather clearly outlined that nothing is lost by removing the social justice terminology, and instead the objective is to remove ambiguity that is associated with the term.

I greatly appreciated the distinctions that were argued between political social justice and ethical social justice in those forums - but the fact remains that based on a reading of the current ethics statement and based on a reading of our literature that there has not been such a distinction made between these different iterations of social justice. In fact - the two have been blurred throughout all the conversations as well as in the literature.

It was an interesting debate. The Motion to remove the language failed. So now I will continue the 'social justice watch' to see if any of this ended up having any notable and pragmatic impact on practice.


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