In February, 23-year-old occupational therapy student Anna-Lena Burdick arrived in Toronto from the Netherlands for a 14-week study placement at Holland Bloorview. While here she says her perspective on working with children with disabilities shifted dramatically. She learned about the concept of advocacy, and the role health professionals can take in being a voice for their clients. In the Netherlands the idea was one she’d never considered. There, she says, the concept isn’t widely embraced, and, in her experience, students aren’t taught how to become advocates for their clients.
Below, Anna-Lena, who grew up in Germany, shares her experiences and insights as a student working at Holland Bloorview and why she believes clinicians need to back their clients inside the clinic and out.
BLOOM: How long has your work focused on disability?
Anna-Lena Burdick: Not very long. I started to focus on disability when I began studying occupational therapy at university three years ago. Before that I wasn’t really exposed to people with disabilities. I’ve always liked working with kids. But Holland Bloorview was my first real exposure to kids with special needs.
BLOOM: You travelled far for this placement. What made you choose Canada?
Anna-Lena Burdick: Back in the Netherlands, the first couple of years of study are theoretical. You spend a lot of time learning about frameworks and different models of care. Many of the frameworks we learned about were developed in Canada, and a lot of our practice is based on what this country is doing already. You have a leading role, from my perspective. I wanted to see the best example of occupational therapy in practice. And plus, I also knew that Holland Bloorview was a leader in pediatrics and rehabilitation.
BLOOM: One thing you discovered here was the concept of clinicians acting as advocates for clients. How did that come about?
Anna-Lena Burdick: I was approached by my supervisor Darlene Hubley and she asked if I would be interested in working with her on a research project on the topic. She explained the concept of advocacy to me. It wasn’t something I had heard of before. It was totally new to me. Immediately I found it interesting and told her I would love to participate.
But when I first started I didn't know how to translate the word 'advocacy' into Dutch and German and it was difficult to communicate the idea of the project without using the English word.
I looked up 'advocacy' on Google Translate in Dutch. There are other words in Dutch that are similar, but not the same. The concept of advocacy never came up before in classes at my university. The term wasn’t mentioned, and neither was the idea of the role we might have ourselves.
Fully-trained clinicians in the Netherlands may understand the concept and know when they have to do it. But from a student’s perspective, I feel that we need some more guidelines. We need professionals to mentor us and tell us, “Here is a good example of a situation where we need to advocate. Here are the steps we can take to advocate for this client.”
BLOOM: Tell us a bit about the research work you’ve been doing.
Anna-Lena Burdick: We ran a series of interviews with a variety of people: students and clinicians, educators at the University of Toronto and one of the parents from the Family Resource Centre at Holland Bloorview. We were trying to figure out whether people were aware of their potential role as advocates, how professionals integrated advocacy into their work and whether students were aware of how to do it.
On a personal level, it was very interesting to see what each of their perspectives were, and to gain more of an understanding of what I should be taking on as a junior professional.
BLOOM: What did you take away from those interviews?
Anna-Lena Burdick: You can advocate on a micro level. For example, say the child you are working with needs special support at school. You could write a letter to the school’s administration explaining why it’s important the child get access to a particular program or therapy.
Or you can advocate at a higher level. You could try to influence the law. Even something as simple as noticing a building in your community that isn’t accessible for people with wheelchairs, and lobbying the government to make that space accessible. These may seem like small things but they can help others to achieve the fullest possible quality of life.
BLOOM: Why is it important for health workers to be advocates?
Anna-Lena Burdick: As occupational therapists, we take a holistic approach to patient care. We try to focus on the client and their individual goals. We build a pretty good idea of what the person needs, what their strengths and challenges are. But we also look at the environment they’re in. We try to see what barriers exist and how we can modify situations to help the client participate as fully as possible. We’re very aware of our clients’ everyday lives. We have such a comprehensive view of their needs and their goals. That makes us great candidates to advocate for them.
As a [clinician], you can also teach your clients to advocate for themselves. That can help them achieve more independence, which is a very important point, particularly from an occupational therapy perspective.
BLOOM: What is the most important thing you’ve learned here?
Anna-Lena Burdick: The experience broadened my horizon a lot. I learned not always to focus on diagnosis. A diagnosis helps give an idea of the strengths and difficulties the child might have. But it has limits because each person is different. As a student it can be easy to get stuck on the diagnosis. But it’s very important to look at the child and their family as a whole, to focus on what that individual child’s strengths and [challenges] are, and on their particular goals and how to help achieve them.
I also love the idea of a family-centred focus. I think empowering families by making them a part of the team and a part of the child’s treatment is so important. I also realized that you always have to be aware that parents can have different goals than the child. And it’s important to listen to both. These two ideas were very new to me.
I’d like to go back to my university and encourage other people to think about advocacy and to become advocates themselves. I don't think many students know a lot about it. I want to try to inspire them with what I learned.
BLOOM: How would you describe Holland Bloorview?
Anna-Lena Burdick: I think it’s just an amazing place. My supervisors were very focused on my learning goals. I feel as though they wanted my input and appreciated my perspective as a student. I also felt welcome as an international student. It seemed as though everyone wanted to get to know me and my story. It was a great feeling, and I’m very thankful for that opportunity.
Holland Bloorview has such a leadership role in children’s rehabilitation. I got the sense here of how important it was to help children reach the fullest quality of life.
Anna-Lena (bottom right) presenting her research work with Darlene Hubley, interprofessional education leader and Anna-Lena's placement supervisor.