Occupational therapists (OTs) frequently work with children and adults with diagnoses of autism, developmental delays, and various physical disabilities to help them gain life skills and increased independence. In assessing these clients and determining the best treatment plan, OTs frequently encounter cultural differences that can be roadblocks to ideal treatment outcomes if not addressed or respected. For example, should an OT speak with the mother of a child who is using traditional healing methods rather than taking her child to a doctor — or should this situation be left alone?

It’s often difficult to know the difference between helping a client and overstepping cultural boundaries. Cultural competence training can help occupational therapists distinguish when they should intervene and those when they should work with the family toward a shared understanding.

Why Does Cultural Competence Matter?

Imagine an OT working with an older woman who has suffered a stroke and lost some mobility and fine motor skills. She does not see “working toward increased independence” as a worthy goal, which the OT finds confusing. The client may come from a culture in which she values herself as part of a family unit, rather than a more Westernized and self-focused individual, and she might assume that her family will care for her as she ages. This situation may not be a problem for her or the family, but she may run into trouble if her children subscribe to the more American notion that she should care for herself with the least amount of help possible.

What should an OT do in this situation? What should an OT do in this situation? It could be possible to negotiate with the client to discuss working together to increase strength, mobility, and self-help skills, with cultural sensitivity in mind. A similar situation would be a mother who refuses to acknowledge her son’s autism diagnosis or the family who wants to use traditional healing methods for their daughter’s cerebral palsy alongside their work with an occupational therapist.

How to Increase Cultural Competence

Ideally, learning the best practices for cultural competence as an occupational therapist should start in school. If occupational therapists find themselves out of depth when in the field, there are a few ways to work toward a greater understanding of others’ cultural differences:

• OTs can learn about each client as an individual and educate themselves about the client’s country of origin, ethnicity, religion, and more

• OTs should examine their backgrounds and biases before taking on a client they assume to be “different” from themselves

• OTs can consider taking classes and attending conferences that focus on diversity, cultural differences, and how these differences may appear in an OT’s practice

Get in Touch to Learn More

Are you curious about occupational therapy or how cultural competence training can lead to a more equitable and productive OT practice? Check out how WPS, leading the way in cultural competence amongst occupational therapists through assessments like SPM™-2.