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UD alumna Varleisha Lyons, an accomplished author and international speaker, was recently named the American Occupational Therapy Association’s first vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, access and belonging.
UD alumna Varleisha Lyons, an accomplished author and international speaker, was recently named the American Occupational Therapy Association’s first vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, access and belonging.

Transforming occupational therapy

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

UD alumna leads American Occupational Therapy Association’s DEI efforts

When someone tells Varleisha (Gibbs) Lyons “no,” she pushes harder. As a University of Delaware student aspiring to be an occupational therapist (OT), she was told to consider “‘smaller schools in the Midwest’” for graduate school or raise her GPA. The following semester, she got straight A’s and attended Columbia University for her master’s in occupational therapy. As an OT entering academia, she recalls being told: “‘You’re too green for this position,’” or “‘I don’t know if you’re cut out for this.’”

“People doubted my abilities, and it forced me to focus on the people who gave me support and resources and made me realize: if you tell me no, I’m definitely going to do it,” Lyons said. 

Now, the UD alumna is an accomplished author and international speaker at the top of her game. She was recently named the American Occupational Therapy Association’s (AOTA) first vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, access and belonging (DEIJAB), where she aims to bolster the organization’s commitment to stand up to racism and discrimination and increase diversity in the occupational therapy field, where approximately 14.8% of practitioners are people of color, according to AOTA’s 2023 Workforce and Salary Survey.  

“We have a significant lack of diversity in our profession that we’ve been trying to rebuild since segregation. Not only do we lack people of color, but people who identify as male in the profession make up a small percentage,” Lyons said. “My goal at AOTA is not just to diversify the profession but to add supports and resources that make all occupational therapy practitioners more culturally intelligent. This includes race, gender, disability, age and everything that makes us different.” 

Focused on practitioners, clinicians, students and clients, Lyons, who graduated from UD’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) in 2000, is working to transform the profession to be more inclusive and accessible. 

“We know that many individuals come from different backgrounds and may not know about OT,” Lyons said. “It’s one of those professions that unless you have a family or friend who receives services, you simply don’t know it exists.”

She’s also working on raising awareness by creating a pathway program. 

“We need more people to go into different communities — not just underserved communities. We must reach diverse populations and target middle and high school students to pique their interest and inspire future OTs and OT assistants,” Lyons said. 

Lyons works closely with fellow UD alumna and Delta Sigma Theta (Mu Pi Chapter) sorority sister Angela Warren, DEIJAB practice manager at AOTA. Warren graduated from CAS in 1998 with a bachelor’s in English and a concentration in journalism. Together, they established a grant-funded Diverse Leaders Program at AOTA, which will graduate its first cohort this spring. The program teaches established OT practitioners how to be better leaders and to enhance diversity in the workplace and profession.

“We hope to have them travel across the country to help others do this important work,” Lyons said. 

How UD helped her get there

As a teen growing up in New Castle, Lyons was part of the Forum for Advanced Minorities in Engineering (FAME). The program offers academically talented and motivated rising juniors and seniors to stay on campus during the summers and take classes at UD. 

“UD opened its doors to underrepresented children, which gave me a pathway into UD,” she said. “There was a strong Black American community on campus at the time, and the moment I stepped on campus as a Blue Hen, it felt like home. And it still feels like home every time I come back.”

Lyons, who obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology and minored in Black American studies at UD, admits, “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without UD.” 

She had many interests back then.

“I was into everything,” laughed Lyons. “Fashion, acting, writing, dancing.” 

As a junior, Lyons’ advisor pointed out she had all A’s in her psychology classes and noted the major might merge all her interests. 

Through her studies, Lyons began volunteering and shadowing OTs with Easter Seals, where she encountered a teen who had been in a motor vehicle crash and had to learn how to walk and talk again. 

“She was a dancer like me. I had danced my whole life and was involved in UD's Dark Arts Performing Dance Company. So, they asked me, ‘Can you show her a few of your dance moves?’ So, I did a few pliés, and her mother started crying. Right then, I was hooked and knew this was the profession for me,” Lyons said.

Her passion for occupational therapy and helping people live was reignited. 

Where it all began

Lyons suffered from stiff joints and was diagnosed at a young age with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and a blood disorder. At one point, she had a cast on her leg and remembered the therapists who’d come into her hospital room, helping her get out of bed and get to the playroom safely. 

She recalled, “They saw me as a whole person. I was there because I had a cast on my leg, but they weren’t focused on that. They asked about my interests; they kept my mind going while I was hospitalized. They knew I was a good student, and I used to get math problems wrong because of my handwriting, so they worked with me to improve that.”

She didn’t know it then, but they were occupational therapists. These women who dramatically improved her quality of life also inspired Lyons’ career path. 

“They just called themselves ‘therapists,’ and now I make it a point to say, ‘I’m an occupational therapist,’ so no other little children mistake OTs for physical therapists,” Lyons said. 

After graduating from UD and obtaining her master’s at Columbia, Lyons worked as a contract OT, ultimately opened her own practice, Universal Progressive Therapy, in North Jersey, and started a family. She got her doctorate of occupational therapy at Thomas Jefferson University and her doctorate in health sciences at Seton Hall University while a faculty member at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. 

She created Delaware’s first occupational therapy program at then-Wesley College, which was acquired by Delaware State University (DSU) in 2021. The program continues at DSU today.

A lifetime’s worth of accomplishments, including authoring several books, landed Lyons at AOTA in 2020, where her efforts to diversify the field of OT in her new role continue. She points out that words matter as she pushes for language changes that include eliminating the word “minority.” 

“When you hear the word ‘minority,’ you think minor; that’s a constant label and reminder for people of color that they’re minor. I don’t like how it feels to hear it,” Lyons said. “The makeup of the U.S. is changing, and minorities are becoming the emerging majority, so we must remove that stigma, especially for our youth.”

She also wants to see cultural competence language continue to evolve. 

“OT practitioners look at the whole person. How can you do that without understanding their culture? But you can’t be competent in someone else’s culture,” Lyons said. “Instead, we must be culturally humble, have cultural humility, or be culturally responsive by seeking information to become more culturally intelligent.” 

Last year, Lyons received the Roster of Fellows Award from AOTA, one of the most prestigious honors in the profession. This year, she’ll accept an award to become a fellow with the National Academies of Practice’s interprofessional group of healthcare practitioners and scholars dedicated to supporting affordable, accessible, coordinated quality healthcare for all.

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