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Wednesday, January 29, 2020 - 10:15am

Sharon Sedlak’s recent scouting trip to Morocco shaped up to be more fascinating, and valuable, than she could have ever imagined. Clinic education director for Mercy College’s occupational therapy assistant program, and academic fieldwork coordinator, Sedlak’s role involves building relationships with health organizations to place occupational therapy assistant students in fieldwork placements to complete their clinical experience. She is constantly on the lookout for direct service opportunities that will give students enriching global and nontraditional experiences for their fieldwork.

Morocco provided just that — the chance to practice occupational therapy in a county where citizens are just starting to consider integrating physical and mental rehabilitation into the healing process, where the foundations of occupational therapy are slowly being adopted by a culture used to a narrow definition of care and where practitioners are learning how to adapt to the unique treatment needs of the Moroccan culture.

The service-learning trip was organized by Dr. Said Nafi, OTD, OTR/L, CLT and Elizabeth Stevens-Nafai, globally recognized health leaders who advocate for an improved health care system in Morocco. They run the first and only occupational therapy program in the country, where they produce knowledgeable, skilled and competent occupational therapists who can treat people of all ages in need of rehabilitation to promote function and prevent injury and illness throughout Morocco.

In Morocco, health care for individuals with disabilities looks different than in the United States. Considered divine work, individuals with disabilities are cared for at home by their family members, a practice that has become increasingly unsustainable and burdensome. Nafi, along with others in the field, are slowly shifting the culture perception of disabled persons, recommending that they should have the opportunities to live meaningful, productive lives outside of the home. This shift in perception has influenced the health care system on a larger scale, and the Moroccan government has made strides to regulate care and rehabilitation, address children with physical disabilities and autism and encourage workforce accommodations.

The trip brought Sedlak, along with a myriad of health care professionals, to several health care sites, including Nafai’s occupational therapy program, orphanages and health care clinics. Not only did they learn about the country’s juxtaposing innovations in care and dramatic needs, but they directly treated patients with a variety of disabilities and ailments.

Sedlak, along with the trip participants, provided OT for individuals with disabilities, cancer patients, laborers and orphanage administrators. For example, they provided trainings on ergonomic solutions, motor development for infants, and cancer symptom management and prevention. Sedlak believes the scouting trip was incredibly meaningful and hopes to bring future Mercy students to Morocco.

“I believe occupational therapy assistant students and all other members of the interdisciplinary team would greatly benefit from this trip and gain a crucial understanding of how different cultures’ health systems operate,” Sedlak said. “They may develop a deeper cultural sensitivity, which is something the occupational therapy profession promotes in prospective therapists. And, they would learn how to adapt their practices in nontraditional environments.”

Sedlak hopes to continue to participate in the transformation of Morocco’s health care system as opportunities for individuals with disabilities evolve and the demand for occupational therapy increases. The experience inspired her to organize a trip to Morocco for Mercy students — what she thinks will be a life-changing journey that will instill empathy and dignity in the next generation of occupational therapy practitioners and all other allied health care services at Mercy College.