BY Gail Fagan
The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA) has named Dr. Shirley Wells, chair and associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, as one of the 100 Influential People in Occupational Therapy (OT).
Wells joins other leaders and innovators, living or deceased, who advanced or revolutionized the field, including the founders of the profession, as AOTA celebrates OT’s 100-year history in 2017.
The 100 Influential Persons were nominated by the public and the OT Archive Editorial Board that selected the final list from more than 400 nominations.
“To think I am in a group with the founders…I still can’t quite get over it,” Wells said.
For the university, the recognition shows its commitment to the profession and a growing awareness of a quality program, she said.
“We – the university – play a vital role in creating and developing future practitioners, especially those from diverse backgrounds,” Wells said. “The recognition elevates the program, too, in terms of that we are a very reputable program. This year we actually ranked 65th among approximately 168 OT programs nationwide.”
One of her nominators, Dr. Angela Scoggin, an OT faculty member at UTRGV, described Wells as a tireless advocate for cultural inclusion and diversity in OT for nearly 40 years.
“She has advocated for diversity through her groundbreaking books on culture and occupational therapy; her scholarly articles related to culture and health; her role as cultural liaison for AOTA, including calling for a diverse and inclusive membership, nondiscrimination, and use of gender neutral language in AOTA documents; and her contributions as chair and program director of OT at UTRGV,” Scoggins wrote.
Growing up without limits
Wells grew up in a single parent household in the projects of Dallas, she said, with her five siblings, all of whom graduated from college.
“My mom – who was a maid – always told us ‘whatever you want to do, we will find a way to make it happen, don’t limit yourself,’” said Wells, who now passes on similar advice to her UTRGV students.
Wells said, with her undergraduate degree in Latin and minor in chemistry from The University of Texas at Austin, she intended to go to medical school. She was later convinced by her physician brother that OT was the profession she was hunting for.
“I saw that it was working with people. I saw variety in that occupational therapists treat the entire age range. It also has a very strong psych component and getting into the psychosocial was something I wanted to do,” she said.
She went on to earn a B.S. in occupational therapy from The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, a Master of Public Health, Maternal and Child Health with a specialty in Chronic and Handicapping Conditions of Children from the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis and a doctorate in Public Health from The University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston.
Wells came to then-UT Pan American in 2001 after stints at other universities and in clinical practice, including owning a clinic with her brother in Brownsville, where she still lives.
Bringing passion and cultural diversity to OT
Wells said the job of an OT is to address anything that a person needs to have a productive and satisfying life and often that is not an easy task.
“You have to think about physical limitations, the psychosocial, who is paying for it, where they are living, what is going on in the community and what are their goals. You have to take in all that and then decide what am I going to do and how can I best help my client,” Wells said.
For some time, she said she was the only African American in a profession that had been traditionally filled with all white females. Having served Native Americans and Hispanics at prior locations where she worked, she saw the need to take regional and cultural differences into account in OT treatments.
In her extensive involvement with AOTA, Wells helped rewrite policies to ensure inclusion of different groups. A series of three books she co-authored established a model on how to become culturally competent within the profession, the latest of which examines that model’s effectiveness.
Her colleague, Dr. Leonard G. Trujillo, professor and chair of the Occupational Therapy Department at East Carolina University, said Wells spearheaded in the early 1990s the movement of bringing understanding of cultural importance and significance to the profession, including its value in the assessment of clients.
“Her passion and driving forces made a difference during a time of indifference and brought about what now has become a clear path toward inclusion of social justice and understanding of the client as a person who must be understood from their perspective based on their values, morals and cultural uniqueness,” Trujillo said.
Dedication to clients, students, the profession
At UTRGV, Wells is excited about innovative research and new technologies being developed to help clients, as well as plans to expand the current master’s program in the next few years into an entry-level doctoral program.
“Our goal is to be the center of all the newest technology that is created, so people here can have access to quality therapy like everyone else across the state and country…and if you want to do research on the Hispanic population, we want you to come here,” she said.
Since the program began as a baccalaureate program in 1999 at then-UTPA, there have been 364 graduates – 175 at the baccalaureate level and 189 at the master’s level, all of whom are pictured on the walls of the campus building where Wells works.
As a teacher, Wells describes herself as demanding.
“I tell them, as a person from a diverse group, you are going into a world where you have to compete and you will have to be more than three times better and not be afraid,” she said.
Jack Ruelas, a 2001 graduate from the program, confirms her sternness as a professor.
“I thought of her as a parental figure. She was very stern and uncompromising in her standards for her students. She demands you put forth your best effort,” said Ruelas, who after working as a pediatric therapist for years returned to work under Wells as a clinical assistant professor and academic fieldwork coordinator.
Ruelas sees the recognition as a testament to Wells’ dedication to her profession, her students and program and her OT organizations.
“I hope to one day follow her footsteps to make lasting contributions to our profession and our university,” he said.
Wells is being recognized at the annual AOTA conference being held March 30-April 2 in Philadelphia.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is the national professional association established in 1917 to represent the interests and concerns of occupational therapy practitioners and students of occupational therapy and to improve the quality of occupational therapy services. Current AOTA membership is approximately 60,000, including occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants, and occupational therapy students and represents 213,000 occupational therapy practitioners and students in the United States.