Facing the Challenge of Ending Harassment Head-on

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By Tamara Sabatino, COF, COA, and Karen Edwards

In August 2018, the Össur Women's Leadership Conference held a panel discussion with about 50 attendees in which one of the topics discussed was sexual misconduct and harassment in O&P. The goal was to find out if it existed and, if so, to what extent. Responses during this discussion were personal, eye-opening, and revealed harassment not only exists in our profession, but that it is pervasive.

It became clear that residents were particularly at risk of harassment given that they are dependent on the residencies to finalize their education and cannot easily challenge the situation. In attendance at this conference were three members of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Orthotics and Prosthetics (NAAOP) and two members of the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA). The seriousness of the situation became apparent as the attendees spoke about their experiences, and the association members made the decision to take the topic to their respective boards. The NAAOP and AOPA boards agreed that the profession should deal with the issue immediately and brought the topic to the O&P Alliance meeting at the AOPA Assembly in September 2018. Additionally, following the conference, an independent group of O&P professionals formed the O&P Harassment Advocacy Work Group to discuss the issue, to formulate solutions, and to make sure it continues to be addressed within the profession. A member of the work group also participated in the discussions within the Alliance as did the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE).

One result of these discussions was an open letter from each of the Alliance member associations to all O&P professionals condemning sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination. The letter stated that these behaviors will not be tolerated, and repercussions will result if they are confirmed. How this will be determined fairly and what those results will be remains to be formulated. It was also decided that education about harassment should be provided to the profession, and various organizations are working on ways to provide that.

O&P is often at the cutting edge with our products and with our ability to resolve the most challenging cases. By nature, we are out-of-the box thinkers. This topic should be no different. Changing the dynamics of how we deal with harassment of all kinds starts internally at the clinic level, with education and written policies protecting staff members. Companies can support their employees should any type of harassment come from coworkers, vendors, or patients. All staff members, male or female, should feel comfortable when they come to work, and if they don't, they should know their employer is prepared to fight for their safety.

We received negative and positive feedback after the open letter was released on the OANDP-L listserv. We were proud to see the positive support, and we took the negative responses as another marker that we as a profession still need to do better to change the stigma of harassment and discrimination. Men, women, residents, practitioners, and administrative staff all bring value to our organizations, and we should all face the change head-on. We have great minds among us, let's put them together and advocate for those who need us.

Tamara Sabatino, COF, COA, is the director of sales and operations at Body In Motion Sports & Orthopaedics, Toms River, New Jersey. Karen Edwards is a senior area manager for Prosthetics at Össur Americas and the director of the Össur Women's Leadership Initiative.