Social Justice and Occupational Therapy

A Group Home in A Small Town 

I had never heard of the profession  called "occupational therapy" when I applied for a job taking care of 9 developmentally disabled adults in 1977. We lived in a beautiful, former doctor's house with a wrap-around porch and stained glass sliding doors located in
Saugerties, New York. This town is located near New Paltz, New York where I had recently graduated with an English degree and not far from Woodstock-where hippies continued to search for the dissipating 1960s music and drug scene. Saugerties had an 8:00 pm curfew for teenagers and the only movie theater offered nothing in between  Doris Day fluff and hard porn.

"My Guys" Survived Willowbrook State School 

My 9 "guys" like many others with developmental disabilities had grown up in a squalid and overcrowded institution. They lived at one called The Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, New York. Fortunately, the 1970s was the beginning of the "deinstitutionalization" movement.    According to, Willowbrook. was overcrowded, abuse was rampant and public outcry led to its closure in 1987. One of the most scandalous reports of  abuse involved using residents as research subjects in the late 1950s to study treatments for hepatitis.

My Year as a Houseparent

As I mentioned, I had never heard of occupational therapy when I moved into the group home. I was only 23 years old and received virtually no training. However, I knew things were not quite right when

  • the dentist pulled rotten teeth out without using any anesthesia. He also convinced the nurse to change Kenny's  anti-epileptic medication Dilantin to a different one because of gum disease side effects. Kenny began to have daily seizures.
  • David had a limp, apparently due to one leg being shorter than the other. A physical therapist adapted his shoe and provided exercises. After that David frequently tripped and fell.
  • Vincent arrived to the home with nothing in his suitcase except cookies provided by his sister. He went from 250 to 150 pounds during my one year of employment and became much more cheerful.

Making a Home Environment

I had no idea how to cook a decent meal for myself, let alone 9 men and the hubby who joined me in this adventure. I actually threw onions, peppers, mushrooms and raw meat into a pot and thought it would turn into dinner! However, I knew how to have fun and utilize the resident's strengths. Bruce, the ham with the guitar in the photo was quite mischievous but clever in finding his way around town. Willy who was always smiling and trying to please could be teamed up with Bruce to run errands such as delivering mail to a box or picking up a store item.

Each of "my guys" had responsibilities to wash their own laundry, set the table, clean up after meals and prepare their lunches for the next workday. Davis and Frank had been buddies for many years at Willowbrook and found comfort in sharing the bedroom. Arnold learned that he didn't need to hoard food in his dresser draws and to wait until I told him it was OK to pick vegetables from the garden.

Social Justice and Developmental Disabilities 

I recognized early on how vulnerable my clients with developmental disabilities were given how they depended on society, caregivers and administrators to be kind and provide the services to achieve quality of life. I believe that seeking "social justice"  not only applies to people with disabilities but also  other vulnerable populations including:

  • people of color
  • immigrants
  • women
  • and religious minorities and/or atheists.

As an occupational therapist I am eager to see  every individual achieve meaningful occupation, respect and health. This is why I use my voice and my vote to attain these goals. We all should!


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