Wingate student working to expand minority presence in occupational therapy

by Luanne Williams

When Jalynn Parnell graduates from Wingate in 2022, she’ll be part of a very small club, but one she hopes to help expand. African Americans make up just 4 percent of the nation’s occupational therapists.

“When I first started out, I was very nervous,” Parnell says. “It is not that I haven’t had that experience before where I was the only Black person in the class. It was knowing how stigmatized and stereotyped African Americans are sometimes, and realizing that now I’m in a profession where only 4 percent of practitioners are Black. It was intimidating.”

It was August of 2019 when she and 35 other students – all women and all but four Caucasian – came together to form the first cohort in Wingate’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy program. She struggled initially, not sure she would fit in. But by the end of the first semester, Parnell had found her tribe.

“The ladies I hang out with are open-minded and sweet, and they treat me like, ‘I can’t say I am in your shoes, but I’m here to be a listening ear,’” she says.

Having hit her stride, Parnell wants to be both a listening ear and a voice for other African American students who have considered a career in healthcare but are reluctant to pursue their dreams.

Earlier this month, she spearheaded a presentation, via a Zoom meeting, for the Minority Association for Pre-Health Students group at Shaw University, a historically Black institution in Raleigh. On Nov. 19, she’ll lead a similar one for students at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.

Two female occupational therapy students share a smile.

“I know how it is being an African American student and wanting to go into a health profession and the fear that settles in. I have been in your shoes,” she told the students at Shaw. “As young Black medical professionals, we have to learn to rise above the stigmas and stereotypes. There is no need to compare ourselves to anyone. We are just as capable as the next man or woman.”

Parnell’s efforts are part of her role as ambassador representative for the Wingate University Chapter of COTAD, the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity. Seven other members of the organization joined her to share their passion for the field, talking about why they wanted to become an OT. Dr. Reeti Douglas, assistant professor and doctoral capstone coordinator in Wingate’s OTD department, spoke about Wingate OT admissions requirements and the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Vision 2025, a pillar of which is “equity, inclusion and diversity.”

“The change has to start with us,” Parnell says.

The AOTA has put a growing emphasis on diversity and inclusion as part of its vision statement, which describes OT as “an inclusive profession” that “maximizes health, well-being, and quality of life for all people, populations, and communities.”

Parnell plans to take her expertise back to her own community of Darlington, S.C., where she says access to OT care is limited and healthcare inequities are an undeniable barrier.

“Limited resources and low socioeconomic status play a role in people not getting OT care,” Parnell says. “When you are in a city that is impoverished or in a rural location with not much access, you don’t know about OT, and it’s not introduced when you go to the doctor. Also in our culture, treatment for an African American individual is different than for a Caucasian person.”

Inequitable care

National studies have long proven the role of implicit bias in healthcare. A 2003 report from the National Academy of Medicine concluded that across nearly every type of therapeutic intervention, Blacks and other minorities receive fewer procedures and poorer-quality care than Whites. The findings were the same, even when researchers took variations in health insurance, socioeconomic status, severity of disease and other factors into account.

Parnell says that sometimes primary-care physicians don’t recommend OT services even when they would help because they assume the patient can’t afford additional treatment or wouldn’t take advantage of it.

“If the primary-care physicians are not giving equitable care to everyone, all the other health professions fall behind,” she says. 

Wingate OTD students have heard firsthand from occupational therapists in the field who have faced discrimination. Wingate’s OTD director, Dr. Melissa Sweetman, has brought in African American occupational therapists to speak to Wingate’s OTD students.

“They said discrimination does happen,” Parnell says. “OT is client-centered. So if the client is uncomfortable with our skin color and us as people, we cannot effectively perform treatment. You can try to talk to them, but it’s ultimately the client’s decision.”

Although she can’t change client attitudes, Parnell wants to do all she can to encourage more people of color to pursue careers in healthcare, especially occupational therapy, a field that she didn’t know existed until her final year of undergrad at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She earned a bachelor of arts in psychology with a minor in health promotion, education and behavior in 2018.

Parnell is on track to earn her doctor of occupational therapy degree in the spring of 2022. Her dream is to return to Darlington to open an early-intervention clinic that would offer occupational, speech and physical therapy for infants to 3-year-olds.

“It’s a great profession, and there is so much need for minorities in this profession,” Parnell says. “I talk about it when I am in personal conversations with people, and I will get random Facebook messages from people who have heard I am in OT and want to know what it is about.”

“That makes me feel good,” she says. “At least I am getting the name ‘OT’ out there.”

Learn more about Wingate’s OTD program.

Oct. 30, 2020