Not every student or practitioner has the opportunity to experience firsthand the intricacies that go on behind the scenes at the American Occupational Therapy Association. As students and practitioners, we often find it challenging to understand all of the effort and dedication that goes into sustaining a successful professional association and why it is so important to be engaged in a way that best suits the needs and interests of its members.
For my doctoral specialty internship, I was able to immerse myself within many unique experiences over the last 14 weeks in order to foster professional development in the areas of leadership, policy analysis, and advocacy related to AOTA and the profession.
Each unique experience allowed me to either learn, grow, or see different perspectives. I participated in a wide range of experiences, from meetings with members of Congress to specialty conferences, which all provided me the opportunity to grow in ways I didn't know possible. Although I experienced many turning points and moments of realization throughout my time at AOTA, there were some that will leave a significant mark on my professional journey as I move forward. Here are the four things I learned about occupational therapy advocacy as a Federal Affairs Intern.
Lesson 1: The process of getting legislation introduced is not as straightforward as it seems
Within the Federal Affairs department, I had opportunities to learn about the legislative process and what role AOTA plays in advocacy at the national level. In spending time with Abe Saffer, Legislative Representative at AOTA, I was able to identify the various components of the legislative process. I attended one-on-one meetings with Congressional staff, small “meet-and-greet” events with state representatives, as well as larger gatherings with Senators from various states. Each meeting allowed me to not only give my OT “elevator pitch,” but also to really understand why it was so important to have an elevator pitch in the first place. Some members of Congress are already familiar with occupational therapy in some capacity, while others have not heard of it before, so it is crucial to be able to articulate what we do in a way that is understandable and leaves a lasting impact on the individual. The more members of Congress who are aware of what OT is, the better chance we have of getting their support on legislation that will benefit our practice and clients. It is an empowering feeling to meet a member of Congress who truly recognizes and supports the value of the profession through their support on key legislative issues. Moving forward, I know that I will use the skills and knowledge gained to connect with other professionals in order to create positive change for the profession.
The more meetings I went to, the more I saw the importance of advocating for the profession and the more confident I felt in my ability to convey that message to those who can help us impact our profession in a positive way. One of my most memorable moments was getting to attend a bill “mark-up” with the Federal Affairs team for the legislation introduced to promote workforce diversity in allied health professions.
Takeaway for OT advocates: It is crucial for members to recognize that AOTA membership provides opportunities and resources for advocacy on various levels. It is also important to have a ready-made elevator pitch when you are talking with people who may not be knowledgeable about the profession.
Lesson 2: Policy Analysis is Important
Through my experience, I gained unique skills related to policy analysis as it relates to the practice of occupational therapy. I can say that I am more confident in analyzing policy and how it relates to occupational therapy and health care. I have had various opportunities to read a legislative bill and to gain confidence in articulating the implications of supporting legislation and how a piece of legislation can positively impact the profession and the clients we serve. It feels empowering as a professional to not only have the ability to take the time to research a policy and identify potential positive or negative implications for the profession, but to also be able to educate other health professionals and legislators on those implications.
Takeaway for OT advocates: AOTA provides easy-to-use resources related to current legislation so you can truly understand how a bill would benefit those we serve. The AOTA Legislative Action Center is a great way to find information about the federal issues AOTA is working on to promote and defend occupational therapy.
Lesson 3: Networking and Collaboration are Vital for Advocacy
Through my experience at AOTA, I increased my knowledge on collaboration and networking with other professions to ensure that the diverse health care needs of our clients are being met. I attended meetings with other health care professionals ranging from physicians to school-based personnel who represented other professional organizations and coalitions. I was able to see that there is strength in numbers when it comes to supporting health care legislation.
Takeaway for OT advocates: Interprofessional collaboration is important at all levels of advocacy. Build up your network of health care professionals who are passionate about their clients. Look for initiatives to support that you think will benefit the people you serve, regardless of which profession is spearheading the legislation.
Lesson 4: Leadership Comes in All Shapes and Sizes
Being surrounded by AOTA staff during my internship, I gained a deeper perspective on what I view as leadership. Many of the individuals I have come in contact with over the last 14 weeks have exemplified leadership within the profession of occupational therapy. The AOTA staff are all leaders in the sense that they work diligently every day to ensure that the needs of AOTA members and their clients are being served, whether through ensuring that we have access to the best evidence for practice or to make changes that make resources more accessible to members and the community. Exposure to leadership on multiple levels allowed me insight into what type of leader I hope to be someday. Through interactions with many AOTA staff members, I became inspired to create my own path to leadership as I make the transition from student to clinician. I hope to continue to advocate for occupational therapy services on a personal, local, and national level, while using the most compelling evidence to support all that I will do in practice. AOTA provides the tools to succeed, whether it is through fact sheets on the website or through places to connect with other professionals, such as on CommunOT or at specialty and annual conferences. I have learned the power of my voice as an AOTA member and will continue to use it in a way that inspires others to do the same.
Takeaway for OT advocates: We can all be leaders and advocates for occupational therapy. Use the resources and tools available to you as an AOTA member and get inspired to use your voice and inspire others.
The experiences I had at AOTA will benefit me not only professionally, but personally as well, and I can carry these skills with me when I interact with future clients, coworkers, and other individuals I will meet along the way. I learned how important it is for AOTA members to know that membership goes beyond simply having access to resources. The AOTA staff works tirelessly to ensure that the value of our profession is going to be protected for years to come through advocacy and a passion for occupational therapy. I am leaving this experience proud to be a member of the Association and a part of the profession. Every individual I worked with at AOTA provided me with the tools to grow and succeed during my internship. I am thankful for this unique experience and couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with. Thank you to Heather Parsons, Jill Tighe, Abe Saffer, Andy Bopp, and the other AOTA staff for guiding and mentoring me throughout my experience.