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Ryan Lavalley (PhD ’19), is an assistant professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy who places focus on applying OT skills and interventions in community settings.

A 2019 graduate of the PhD in Occupational Science program here at UNC-Chapel Hill, Lavalley has been quick to make deep connections on campus and in the community during his time as both a student and professor. His interest in how occupational therapists can apply their skillset in community settings – particularly in broader systems that impact the everyday lives of patients – has fueled various projects and research that are moving the growing field forward.

Occupational Therapy in the Everyday

Lavalley found a path to occupational therapy thanks to an early interest in social justice issues and personal navigation of challenges presented by structural injustices.

“I recognized occupational therapy’s role in peoples’ everyday lives and saw lots of potential and change happening in the everyday,” he says. “Many disciplines thinking about change are thinking in structural terms, but most people think and live in the everyday – there is much opportunity for occupational therapists to support this area.”

After graduating from Xavier with a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy, Lavalley was interested in pursuing how OTs could use their skills in everyday applications to think about larger social issues. He found UNC’s PhD in Occupational Science program to be a good fit for his research goals and quickly began making connections within the Chapel Hill and Orange County communities.

Community Practice: Individuals, Communities, and Social Policies

Lavalley’s work and research revolves around thinking about OTs outside of the healthcare model, including how they can apply their work in community settings and systems, beyond individual intervention. Much of this work occurs at an intersection of aging, housing, and anti-racism, with a focus on individuals, communities, and social policy.

“The area of community practice uses activity analysis, systems thinking, and holistic approaches to understanding people in their everyday lives,” says Lavalley. “We partner with various organizations in the local community to build programs rooted in this mentality – where OTs can use their skills to build programs that fit into everyday processes of an organization and the people it serves.” 

A few examples of these partnerships include work with organizations focused on mental health, healthy aging, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity and the Orange County Home Preservation Coalition – where Lavalley serves as a coordinator.

Building a Community Practice Lab

Community practice for occupational therapists has gained traction in other areas of the world, like Brazil and parts of Europe, but is not as prevalent in the United States due to its privatized healthcare system. Lavalley and his colleagues are looking to grow the field in the U.S. through the development of a community practice lab.

“Right now there are a few community-oriented projects at universities around the country, but our goal is to create space to build community practice in the United States more substantially,” says Lavalley. “We hope it can be a place where OTs, students, researchers and interdisciplinary practitioners can learn from or partner with those of us who primarily work in community-based occupational therapy.”

Connecting Beyond Chapel Hill

Launching the community practice lab both with local partners and in a digital space will allow Lavalley and his team of colleagues and students to reach beyond UNC-Chapel Hill in pursuit of collaboration and learning. He is familiar with the power of online connections and takes advantage of a strong Instagram and Twitter following, along with a podcast produced with colleague Dr. Khalilah Johnson.

“It’s a new age for sharing ideas and information,” says Lavalley. “Many conversations around community practice are taking off because of practitioners’ and researchers’ abilities to explore and have discussions on both local and international levels through digital communication.”

Lavalley can be followed on Instagram and Twitter. His podcast with Johnson, Dr. ThOTs, is available to listeners on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.