Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Gentle Art of World Domination: Art, Occupational Therapy, and Libraries

This year we have the distinct pleasure of hosting updates from Dr. Matt Finch, with whom we’ve worked on a number of LAIP features, as he serves as Creative in Residence at the State Library of Queensland, Australia. Matt’s visit with a class of new Occupational Therapy students demonstrates how, by bringing hands-on, participatory activities in place of a “traditional” library lecture, library staff can help students think about their studies in new ways.

by Matt Finch

The poor students, they didn’t know what hit them when the librarians came to town.

Two days into their careers as occupational therapists, they were facing the dreaded CMOP-E – one of the most complex and important theoretical diagrams for the course. Not only that, but the CMOP-E had taken the form of a large vanilla cake.

I was at Griffith University, on Australia’s Gold Coast, with occupational therapists – “OTs” – who had just begun their studies at the School of Allied Health Sciences.

The cake was the work of Amy Walduck, State Manager for the Queensland branch of Australia’s library association ALIA, and baker extraordinaire.

In an age when information technology grows increasingly sophisticated, when we can even speculate about learning languages just by eating a pill, then why shouldn’t we be using foodstuffs as a medium for information?

I’d worked with student occupational therapists before and noticed that even three years into their courses, some of them still struggled to remember the details of the CMOP-E, the Canadian Model of Occupational Performance and Engagement.

Invited on behalf of the State Library of Queensland to run activities for the opening week of the Occupational Therapy degree, I chose to give students the opportunity to physically consume the diagram – and then challenged them to create edible presentations based on their own workshop activities.

All this was only possible thanks to Professor Matthew Molineux and his colleagues at Griffith. Matthew’s a passionate advocate for occupational therapy, and one unafraid to challenge orthodoxies within his own profession. Working with him has shown us the potential for libraries, librarians, and the communities they serve to work more closely with OTs.

Although occupational therapy is an allied health profession, it goes beyond the medical model to explore broader notions of wellbeing. Matthew tells people that occupational therapists help people with the things in life they want, need, or have to do – or more formally, “Occupational therapists enable people to engage in all the activities that give their life meaning, meet their personal needs, and fulfill their obligations.”

Like librarianship, occupational therapy is a vocation which is sometimes misunderstood. Like librarianship, that might be in part because it is a profession with a female workforce in a patriarchal world; and while librarians have been pushing hard to change the public conception of their work as “shelves and shushing”, occupational therapists face a similar challenge in a world where their job title still elicits visions of convalescent homes, rehabilitation, and basket weaving.

Not that there’s anything strictly wrong with the latter: Matthew likes to ensure that his students get to try their hand at this old-school tool of the occupational therapist, and has also advocated for knitting as a source of wellbeing.

“Occupational therapy is artistic in a number of ways. First, working with people who are vulnerable requires a high level of interpersonal skills, and while you can develop these, expert practice requires an almost artistic approach. Second, every person is unique and so our work with clients can’t be approached as a recipe. Occupational therapists, therefore, need to creatively apply knowledge and skills to meet the individual needs of clients. Third, we have a long history of working with arts and crafts, but sadly those approaches have fallen out of favour in many practice areas. Some in the profession feel we need to rethink this lack of arts and crafts in our educational programs and practice.”

One of the benefits of occupational therapy with an artistic element is that it returns a sense of purpose and creative choice to the therapist’s client. Historically, some people have recalled courses of occupational therapy as humiliating physically challenges: a newspaper editor forced to rearrange a child’s set of plastic letters after a stroke, or an elderly woman pedalling a fretsaw with no saw or no wood. Matthew compares this aimless activity to the Australian penal colonies’ historical practice of “labour in vain”, where convicts were given futile and pointless tasks as punishment.

The client-centred and imaginative approach championed by Matthew and other OTs around the world resonates well with libraries’ increasing drive to empower the communities they serve and put choice in the hands of their users.

In activities we’ve run with Matthew and his team at Griffith University, student therapists have used their skills in bizarre scenarios ranging from treating a depressed immortal sock monkey to uncovering a conspiracy at the heart of a far-future paradise.

These might seem frivolous, but using play to explore the practical application of professional skills and values can help practitioners to understand how broadly applicable their talents are. 

If a student therapist can arrive in a far future utopia and use their OT skills to uncover the truth behind the perfect society, then they should have no problem arguing for the relevance of occupational therapy in almost any real-world setting. And if librarians are the professionals who take people anywhere they want to go in the realm of knowledge and culture, then occupational therapists are their healthcare cousins, doing the same for equity of access to the daily activities we want, need, and have to do.

Matthew jokes about “world domination by occupational therapy”, believing that the lens through which his colleagues see the world could radically transform our global way of life for the better. That’s not so far from the dreams of equitable access to information and culture which underpin librarians’ finest impulses.

Matthew sees many opportunities for occupational therapists and librarians to join forces, especially with public and community libraries being encouraged to play a part in the health and wellbeing agenda. “I think there are lots of similarities or potential opportunities for collaboration but they are not yet at the forefront of people’s minds. Occupational therapy has a key role to play in healthcare, but we often don’t do as much as we could in working within the broader community.”

“I have fond memories from the ‘olden days’ of flicking through card indexes and sitting on the floor in the stacks surrounded by journals looking for literature! Libraries are now dynamic spaces located in the community in which a whole range of occupations take place and so I think we could really usefully work together.”

from Library as Incubator Project

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