Written By: Tanya Benjamin
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word 'occupation'? Although occupation is often referred to paid employment, as an occupational therapist and a PhD student within the discipline of occupational science, I would argue that 'occupation' broadly refers to the things people do or want to do within the context of their everyday lives (WFOT, 2006) that is negotiated and shaped by socio-political, cultural, economic and historical forces (Townsend & Wilcock, 2004). For instance, occupations could involve playing sports or music, doing household chores, taking care of oneself, or anything that falls within the scope of 'doing' within the everyday contexts. Using an occupational lens, which views occupation as central to everyday life being shaped by social-political structures and practices, I’d like to explicate and share some of my experiences in the 2017 Global MINDS Summer Institute.
This picture was taken at Machakos People's Park. The Global MINDS team went out to experience the local culture and participate in local activities (e.g., boating).
Our Complex Challenge: An Issue of Occupational Justice
At the start of the Summer Institute, I was placed in an transdisciplinary team to address issues related to the inclusion and rights of people with mental illness within Machakos, Kenya. Within that specific context, people with mental illness were often denied their rights to participate within their communities and experienced situations of marginalization and exclusion.
I remember how excited I was to be a part of this team and take on this challenge, as I could see clear links to how this wicked issue of societal exclusion could be seen as an issue of occupational injustice. Specifically, when opportunities to participate in occupations, for specific individuals or collectives, has been “barred, confined, restricted, segregated, prohibited, underdeveloped, disrupted, alienated, marginalized, exploited, excluded or otherwise restricted” (Townsend & Wilcock, 2004, p.77), it is considered an occupational injustice. Globally, all individuals need and want to participate in occupations that are meaningful to them. However, certain individuals or collectives are denied opportunities to participate in meaningful occupations, and at the same time, certain individuals or collectives are forced to participate in occupations not meaningful to them, leading to occupational inequities and injustices.
In Machakos, these inequities in occupational participation are experienced by people with mental illness, as they have been denied of opportunities to participate within their society; therefore, this complex challenge that involves addressing issues related to the societal exclusion of people with mental illness that we are trying to tackle is an issue of occupational justice.
Listening to Community Calls for Inclusion through Occupation
To further explore these issues related to the inclusion and rights of people with mental illness, our team immersed ourselves within the community of Machakos. As a first step, we spoke to various community members including college students, vendors in markets, and people we passed, inquiring about the issues that people with mental illness face and how these issues may be addressed. We kept hearing that people with mental illness in Machakos needed opportunities to 'do' things that were meaningful to them, and that they needed a space where they could be provided with opportunities to develop vocational skills as well as be involved in recreational activities that are engaging. On listening to these community calls on how people with mental illness could be included in society, the links between occupational participation, health, wellbeing (Law et al., 1998) and societal inclusion (United Nations, 2016) were made apparent.
Using Occupational Participation as a Means for Promoting Inclusion
After listening to community members’ ideas and brainstorming as a team, we developed an innovative solution to create volunteer-led ‘activity groups’ for people with and without mental illness. We heard from various community members, like local basket weavers and carpenters, about how they were interested in sharing their skills in activity groups with people with and without mental illness. Some ideas for activities that were suggested by community members included soccer games and music nights, as they were common activities within that specific context. Interestingly, these ideas emerged bottom-up, from community members, and were further emboldened by team conversations with all of us bringing different and unique perspectives from varied disciplines including, law, psychiatry, nursing, psychology, and occupational science. Although these ideas emerged from people outside of occupational science and therapy, using an occupational lens highlights that ‘occupation’ is central in addressing this wicked problem related to the exclusion and rights of people with mental illness in Machakos. As such, “occupation can be a site of both resistance to and reproduction of the social order” (Angell, 2012, p.104).
Occupational Justice as a shared Vision across varied Disciplines
The Global MINDS Summer Institute has created and nurtured social innovators and change makers from across disciplines to address wicked problems of inequities and injustices experienced by people with mental illness in Machakos. This vision for an occupational just society, where all individuals have opportunities for meaningful occupational participation, is a shared vision across disciplines and cannot be addressed without collaboration. Transdisciplinary collaborations create avenues for addressing the numerous forces shaping such situations of inequities and injustices that no discipline can solely address. In conclusion, I can genuinely say that being a part of this transdisciplinary Global MINDS cohort has been truly enriching!
Angell, A. M. (2014). Occupation-centered analysis of social difference: Contributions to a socially responsive occupational science. Journal of Occupational Science, 21(2), 104-116.
Law, M., Steinwender, S., & Leclair, L. (1998). Occupation, health and well-being. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(2), 81-91.
United Nations (2016). Leaving no one behind: The imperative of inclusive development. Report on the World Social Situation. Retrieved November 6 2017 from: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/rwss/2016/executive-summary.pdf
Townsend, E., &., Wilcock, A. A. (2004). Occupational justice and client-centred practice: A dialogue in progress. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 71(2), 75-87.
World Federation of Occupational Therapists. (2006). Position statement: Human rights. Retrieved from: http://www.wfot.org/ResourceCentre.aspx
About Tanya Benjamin:Tanya Benjamin is a third year PhD Candidate in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, field of Occupational Science, at Western University. Tanya is committed to addressing social justice issues experienced by marginalized communities within developing regions of the world through utilizing participatory action research (PAR) approaches. Based on her previous practice experiences as an occupational therapist, Tanya is especially concerned with addressing situations of occupational injustices experienced by children and youth with disabilities from marginalized communities and will be working on a PAR project with children with disabilities in India for her dissertation work. During the Global MINDS Summer Institute in Machakos, Kenya, Tanya and her team members from VisAbility Kenya developed a volunteer based program addressing issues related to the rights and inclusion of people with mental illness in Machakos. This program encompasses university students from Machakos conducting meaningful group activities for people with and with out mental illness, as well as them providing mental health and human rights education for the public. Tanya will work with her team and community partners over the next year to implement and evaluate this program.
About the GMFP SnapShot Blog:
Through the SnapShot Blog, the Global MINDS Fellowship Program Fellows will share real-time, insightful and authentic reflections regarding their experiences with the program and their progress of implementing and evaluation their solutions. Each month, our Kenyan and Canadian Fellows will both contribute to the blog. You can learn more about the GMFP here!