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When OTs Wore White Shoes

OT and English Learner Students

Published January 12, 2016 2:43 PM by Debra Karplus

Passionate about genealogy, I learned a long time ago that my grandparents and those before them were immigrants -- mainly from Ukraine, Kiev, Pale of Settlement, Poland and Hungary. My ancestors came to America between 1880 and 1921 through Ellis Island and other American and Canadian ports, knowing little to no English. They were part of the "melting pot" that assimilated into American life, learning enough English to function in this country, start businesses, and contribute to American culture in very positive ways. 

These days, immigration is a hot topic of discussion that seems to gain much attention by the media and by politicians who often have strong opinions on the subject. People are coming to America from Spanish-speaking and other countries to make a good life for themselves and their families. How wonderful it is to those of us who only know the American culture to be able to share our world with others who can add so much to it!

As occupational therapy practitioners, we're likely to have patients or clients from other cultures in whatever setting where we might be working, such as geriatric, rehabilitation or school systems. While in college or beyond, it can be very helpful to learn at least a little Spanish or some other language; and better yet, to become fluent in both spoken and written components of the language. Your clients have much to benefit from your ability to communicate to them in a familiar language; which, consequently, makes your life richer.

If you're providing OT services in school systems, as many OTs are, knowing the terms and acronyms will help you become more effective in your work and especially in communicating to others on your professional team. "English learners" (EL) is the term used to describe a variety of people who are not primarily English speakers. English as a Second Language (ESL) or Transitional Program of Instruction (TPI) are types of school programs for students learning English. TBE refers to Transitional Bilingual Education, and DL is Dual Language. Students in these programs may spend part or all of their day in classes specially designed for them to learn more English to catch up with peers. The school where you work, or where your child is a student, may be staffed to offer none, some, or all of these types of programs.

Besides language, it is essential that you, the OT practitioner, be sensitive and aware of certain cultural differences. For example, making eye contact is not part of certain cultures when interacting. And, some cultures are more dependent on spoken rather than written communication. You may have a new student on your caseload with difficulty holding a pencil, for example, because in his or her culture, this was not a necessary skill.

How exciting that we live in times when our world can seem bigger and more interesting because we have the opportunity to share it with those who are different from us.

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