Graphic by: Danielle Coke - @ohhappydani

Ever wonder how you can partner alongside marginalized groups to make change? What exactly does it mean to be an ally
 Check out the brand new series "Anatomy of An Ally" - a
 7-part series that will show how we can use our mouth, nose, eyes, ears, heart, and hands to make true change in equity and inclusion. 


Part 1. Introduction: "What is An Ally?" 

I’ll never forget the day that I stood over a cadaver for the first time. The smell of reeking formaldehyde still plagues my memory as I think about being tasked to identify every muscle, bone, and ligament in the human body. The brachial plexus still haunts me in the best way possible. As a new eager OT student, there was something about a lab coat and a summer dedicated to learning the human body that excited me. Human anatomy was the first class that I took as a graduate OT student; it was the foundation of my knowledge base as an occupational therapist.

In that class I learned about all the body parts and how they functioned. I came to understand that our body parts allow us to engage with our environment and pursue occupations that give our life meaning. In addition to this, each our body parts have specific functions that allow us to connect with each other. Our mouth, nose, ears, eyes, and hands all play an integral role in how we connect with those around us. It is how we form bonds, relationships - it is how we ally together. 

What is an ally, exactly? An ally can be defined as a person that is associated with another or others for some common cause or purpose. We can also think of an ally as a partner, a teammate… your physical therapy partner co-treating on a complex case kind of thing. Allyship can look like Tennessee binding together for SuperBowl 1999 for the Tennessee Titans vs St. Louis Rams game (#TitanUp). But perhaps we can explore the word ‘ally’ as a verb: “to combine or unite a resource or commodity with another for mutual benefit”.

Our world has shown us that injustice and the lack of allyship has been an unfortunate part of our human experience.  You may wonder what the lack of allyship looks like in our daily lives? Well…

  • The racial injustices with George Floyd or Breonna Taylor this year may serve as recent examples.
  • Or perhaps the fact that disability rights are left unresolved within our laws. 
  • Maybe it is the LGBTQIA individual who has trouble accessing OT services after a gender affirmation surgery. 
  • Or a system that prevents access to OT services for rural communities. 
  • It could be the OT student who is left feeling alone as a minority in their cohort. 
  • Or maybe it is the COTA who silently experiences micro-aggressions as as a part of their every day experience. 

These are just a few of the many examples of marginalized communities and how they experience occupational injustice in many ways, every single day. By definition, we know that occupational injustice occurs when a person is denied, excluded from, or deprived of an opportunity to pursue meaningful occupations or when unchosen occupations are imposed upon them, thus limiting life satisfaction. With this series, we will explore how we can change these examples into opportunities to be OT practitioners who ally and serve as change agents committed to addressing these occupational injustices.

The Tennessee Occupational Therapy Association (TNOTA) is committed to allyship through the promotion of diversity and inclusion within the OT profession. The new establishment of the Diversity and Inclusion committee is purposed with addressing areas of growth as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion for the OT profession in our state. The Diversity and Inclusion committee exists to amplify diversity in the field of occupational therapy, promote awareness about equality, and advocate for a more inclusive profession regarding scholarship and OT practice in the state of Tennessee. Our vision is a future in which Tennessee occupational therapy is more of an equitable, inclusive, and diverse representation of services for our community.

So lets take a walk together- the next 6 months will explore how we as OT practitioners can partner together, as allies. If you are one who has not experienced these injustices personally, this series will explore how you can be an ally committed to making a change. It will explore how we can partner together with our mouths to speak out about injustice or how to use our noses to sniff out implicit bias. It will look at how we can use our eyes to identify privilege, and our ears to keenly listen to diverse experiences. It will address how our hearts can cultivate empathy for the oppressed. And most importantly - how we will join to together to use our hands to take actionable steps to make a change in the state of Tennessee. With allyship, we can be a community of practitioners who are better together - stronger together.


Written by:
DeOnna Clark MOT, OTR/L
TNOTA Founding Diversity Chair


Part 2: A Mouth To Speak Out Against Injustice 

"It takes courage to speak up against complacency and injustice while others remain silent. But that's what leadership is." -  Rosabeth Moss Kanter

I remember throughout OT school our professors telling my cohort that ‘we are the future leaders of the profession’, which was quite intimidating. I didn’t feel qualified to be thrust into that role – I could barely perform a dependent transfer without being terrified of dropping the patient! But as I progressed through the program, to fieldwork, and now being a practicing therapist, I understand what they meant. Leadership is in the minutia, the little moments, the daily conversations. Effective leadership is a posture, not a title. The same applies to our role as allies. 

As allies with a passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must recognize that we are also leaders. We have the unique opportunity to recognize injustices in the humdrum moments of work and practice and speak out against them.

In every moment that we experience or recognize aggression, microaggression, bigotry, ignorance, and/or racism, we must use our mouths to speak. Creative Equity Toolkit has outlined two ways to approach and speak out: Calling Out & Calling In.

Calling Out is appropriate when someone’s behavior is harmful, unacceptable, and must immediately be stopped to protect others. 

Example: You are an occupational therapist co-treating with a physical therapist who is a person of color. You both walk into the patient’s room and the patient immediately states, “I will work with you, but I won’t let them touch me.” 

 When considering this approach, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is someone in immediate emotional, physical, mental distress or danger?
  • Is it most helpful to shut down the conversation rather than invest emotional, physical, mental energy in trying to educate the aggressor?
  • Does the aggressor need to know their actions and/or language will not be tolerated?

If you answered yes, consider these phrases to Call Out:

  • “I need to stop you there, that (language/attitude/action) will not be tolerated.”
  • “I don’t find that funny. Please be mindful and choose a different word.”
  • “I think it would be helpful for you to think through the impact of your (language/attitude/actions) more and speak about this at a later time.”

Calling In is appropriate when a discussion can be used to guide someone to deeper understanding, empathy, and change. 

Example: A coworker is reviewing a chart of a new patient who is a transgender male. The chart indicates that the patient uses he/him pronouns and uses the name Eric. The automated demographic information from the computer system reports “Smith, Emily. Female”. Your coworker uses she/her pronouns and the name Emily when referring to the patient.”

When considering this approach, ask yourself these questions:

  • “Can I build upon this relationship to help encourage the development of empathy?”
  • “Is the person unaware of their impact and could they be interested in seeking understanding?”
  • “Is your approach (as a leader and ally) focused on reflection instead of reaction?”

If you answered yes, consider these phrases to Call In:

  • “Can you explain to me your intention with that (language/attitude/action)?”
  • “Have you considered that your (language/attitude/actions) might be harmful to certain people and communities?”
  • “Why do you believe that to be true? How did you come to that conclusion?”

The next time you encounter injustice as an occupational therapy practitioner, consider your role as a leader and ally. How can you use your knowledge of diversity, equity, and inclusion to Call Out or Call In to create effective change in every moment; the moments that harken a hard pause, and the mundane moments that occur in the natural current of the day-to-day. Let’s continue to ally (verb) by using our mouths to create safe spaces and effective change. 

Written by:
Lauren Hanna OTR/L, OTD
TNOTA Diversity Committee Leader



Call out & call in racism. (n.d.).

Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In. (2018, August 1). Retrieved from

Rosabeth Moss Kanter Quote: "It takes courage to speak up against complacency and injustice while others remain silent. But that's what leadership is..." (n.d.).




Part 3: Eyes to Identify Privilege

Our eyes are small but mighty elements of our body that hold the capacity to conduct how we see the world. As occupational therapy practitioners, we are trained to know how the eye works - and to identify deficits that can impact our patient’s ability to engage with their environment.

I’ll never forget a patient that I had while working in acute care. Mrs. Jones was a 89 year old friendly lady who held a petite frame, a smile almost wider than her face, and eyes that pleasantly greeted me as I entered her room. My occupational consult simply read, “right visual deficit, assess and treat”. After Mrs. Jones pleasantly obliged our session, I assisted her out of bed and initiated a visual training game while standing at the sink. The object of the game was to identify self-care items placed on her right side using the scanning strategies that we trained on before the start of the game. As we began the game, laughter emerged from the room as Mrs. Jones fought to win what became a friendly competition. “You’ve got to be joshing me!” she blurted, as she realized some items were harder to find than others (in the southern world, “joshing” colloquially means “you're kidding me!”).  While playing this game, it became clear that I had the advantage. While Mrs. Jones struggled to identify what was on her right side, I was able to clearly see what was before her. I hadn’t earned that right to “see”, I just could. I was able to see what was out of her field of view. Luckily, through therapeutic intervention I was able to help her use strategies to improve her scanning skills by the end of the session that day.

As I pondered on this experience, I realized that this is not untrue to form in many of our personal lives. Having advantages (whether knowingly or unknowingly) can impact who we are and how we are able to see the world. This is the sentiment that I consider when I think about privilege. By definition, privilege can be defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. In a lot of cases, we are unable to “choose” what privileges we hold, yet we all have them. What we CAN choose, however, is how we allow our privileges to shape who we are, how we think, and thus how we act towards those who are underprivileged.  

What can privilege look like in our everyday lives? Privilege can look like assuming someone else had the same opportunities that you did to pursue a career in OT. Privilege can look like turning a blind eye to racial injustice, simply because it does not impact you. Privilege can look like lack of advocating for a complex patient need, because “it’ll be someone else’s problem”. Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.

So how can we identify our blind spots to make a change? Let’s take a look at how the parts of an eye can help us identify privilege: 

  • Cornea: serves as a protective covering for the front of the eye and helps focus light on the retina at the back of the eye
    Similarly, you can use your influence to be a “covering” or a safe haven for those from underprivileged groups
  • Sclera: the white part of the eye that protects the eyeball
    Similarly, you can use your influence to protect those who may be vulnerable to injustices in our country.
  • Pupil: the black dot at the centre of the eye, an opening through which light can enter the eye.
    Similarly, in spaces of opportunity, you can be the “opening” through which those of  marginalized groups can engage in equitable environments.
  • Iris: the color area of the eye that surrounds the pupil - controls the amount of light that enters the eye. The iris allows more light into the eye when the environment is dark, and allows less light into the eye when the environment is bright.
    Similarly, you can use your privileges to “adjust” the environments that do not promote equity and inclusion.
  • Lens: by changing its shape, the lens focuses light onto the retina. Through the action of small muscles, the lens becomes thicker to focus on nearby objects, and thinner to focus on distant objects
    Similarly, you can use your impact to change the shape of how our world views injustice.

I don’t know what your specific privileges may be, but I invite you to explore them. As an ally, you can use your keen sight and awareness to promote equity, justice, and inclusion for those who do not share those same privileges. Like Mrs. Jones, you may be blissfully unaware of things out of your view - yet this does not mean that accountability is out of reach.

As occupational therapy practitioners, we inherently understand the value of assessment and identification of treating a problem. This is the first step in recognizing privilege - the audacity and courage to self assess and identify your own privilege. The next step is identifying ways to use your advantages to uplift those who are disadvantaged. That is what ally ship looks like - that is what this series is exploring. By self assessing and taking action, we can move forward as a community of allies who are equipped to better serve our patients, and better serve the world around us.

Written by:
DeOnna Clark MOT, OTR/L
TNOTA Founding Diversity Chair