Basket Weaving, Black History and Occupational Therapy

I love reading history, sociology, criminology and psychology that increases my understanding of the impact of hate and cruelty and hopefully using this knowledge to improve current and future lives. “Madness” by journalist, Antonia Hylton is such a book.

As an occupational therapist who has long understood the power of activity to heal both physically and mentally… it was both fascinating and disturbing to learn how basket weaving was a tool to repress African Americans suffering mental illness. The Crownsville Asylum in Maryland was built by the residents who not only cleared the fields, did construction, masonry, cooking, agriculture- hence, all the duties previously imposed on enslaved people to exploit their free labor… But they were also told to weave baskets to reduce their own agitation….. I know that the field of occupational therapy evolved after WWI to heal the traumatized veterans, but I will never view basket weaving in the same light!!!.

I attended Tufts University where the Boston School of Occupational therapy was opened in 1920. Basket weaving has always been a bit of a controversial topic arguing that therapy should focus on functional skills. However, the task analysis involved in using crafts therapeutically has been incorporated into our training and I believe that it has its role and place in addressing mental and physical challenges.

I have read extensively about abuse and neglect at institutions housing the Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled populations……

I was a house manager or AKA “house parent” to 9 men who were released from the infamous Willowbrook institution in New York. I knew that many of the higher functioning residents at Willowbrook and other institutions were used as free labor. In fact, some residents were of normal intelligence, but simply poor and had nowhere else to go…..

The story of “Madness” is focused on abuses against the most vulnerable population at the time- victims of hate and enslavement with huge mental health needs and no treatment or care available that did not exploit their free labor and skills.

I’m sure that many beautiful baskets were woven and sold……

Used therapeutically, basket weaving continues to “work wonders”….

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