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Enhancing Partnerships to Improve Inclusion of Occupational Therapy Students with Disabilities


  • Keri DeGroot, she/her, Assistant Teaching Professor, Rehabilitation/Division of Occupational Therapy, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Danbi Lee, she/her, Assistant Teaching Professor, Rehabilitation/Division of Occupational Therapy, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Emma Gregg, she/her, PhD Student, Rehabilitation Science program, University of Washington, Seattle campus



Project Description

This qualitative study focuses on both barriers and solutions to creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment for disabled allied health professional students. Experiences of occupational therapy (OT) students with requesting and acquiring accommodations for their Master of OT education program were explored. The study sought to better understand challenges, support needs, and recommendations for best practice in supporting the students from the perspectives of three different stakeholders: disabled OT students, faculty, and staff from the Disability Resources for Students (DRS) Center. The study aimed to build a stronger partnership among the stakeholders to support disabled students’ success vs minimal access in their OT education. Ten students, four DRS staff, and seven faculty and staff members supporting the OT program were interviewed individually and in focus groups. While each stakeholder group reported many facilitators and positive experiences, findings showed individual, cultural, and institution-level challenges contributing to a negative learning environment and unhelpful accommodations/support. Some challenges and support needs were particularly associated with the ableist culture, curriculum structure (academic and clinical training), and professional expectations of the field. There were also discrepancies in each stakeholder group’s perspectives and expectations regarding accommodations, leading to confusion, misunderstanding, and, at times, negative learning experiences for students. Recommendations for best practice included micro and macro level suggestions, such as setting clear expectations, clearer communication, integration of universal design, faculty training, and more resources to support DRS and faculty. An action-planning focus group with representatives from all groups was conducted to facilitate partnership and mutual understanding of challenges experienced by each group and to develop short-term action steps to provide helpful accommodations and support. Diversifying the health workforce is one important mechanism to improve attitudes towards disability in health care and provide better care for disability communities. While the study focused on OT education, the challenges and recommendations may be applicable to other health professional programs that have clinical training components and other UW students and faculty providing reasonable accommodations in the classroom.

Project Question

This project aims to better understand the supports and barriers to equitable education that occupational therapy students with disabilities face and what changes can be recommended by three stakeholder groups (faculty/staff, Disability Resources for Students staff, and OT students) to promote a more supportive and inclusive environment.


The Master of Occupational Therapy program is housed in the School of Medicine and Department of Rehabilitation. Cohorts of 24 students spend 2 years in the program (7 quarters of didactic education and 6 months of clinical rotations).


Three stakeholder groups (faculty, DRS staff, and OT students) participated in the study via focus groups and individual interviews. Participants were asked the following main questions: What is going well with receiving and providing reasonable accommodations in OT education? What have been some challenges? What changes would you make or like to see made? Interviews and focus groups were then coded by multiple researchers and reviewed for themes. Possible actionable recommendations from the compiled data were sent out to participants electronically to identify the highest priority items. Representatives of the stakeholder groups came together in an action planning group to determine ways of addressing the highest priorities.


Addressing attitudinal, institutional and policy barriers, and advocating for universal design principles for learning will support students with disabilities across the UW campus, as well as students who don’t currently access DRS accommodations. Students have shared how appreciative they are of having a voice through this research study and are committed to making improvements to the learning environment and accommodation process for those who come after them in the program. Ultimately, we hope that our work will help to attract and graduate a more diverse and competent student body and help build a more diverse healthcare workforce. We are already seeing earlier accessing of accommodations, and faculty implementing changes to communicate support for students, provide reasonable accommodations more equitably and consistently across divisions, and lessen student burden.


We hope to disseminate best practice recommendations around accommodations as well as prioritized action items agreed upon by the stakeholder groups. We also hope to facilitate and model improved partnership and communication across the stakeholder groups to promote success instead of providing only the minimum necessary access to learning for students with disabilities. In many cases, clarity about responsibilities for all parties will lessen confusion and negative impact.

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