Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Occupational science focuses on social transformation

International conference at AUAS draws visitors from all over the world

6 Sep 2019 00:00 | Urban Vitality

Growing nationalism, migration, a shrinking welfare state: all these changes have a particularly strong effect on vulnerable groups. Occupational therapy, a care- and welfare-oriented profession, is increasingly providing social support for these people those impacted most by these changes. Occupational Science is an inter-disciplinary science which informs the practice of Occupational Therapy and these global transitions were the theme of the international Occupational Science Europe Conference, which took place at the Faculty of Health at AUAS last weekend.

Care providers are seeing how major social changes, such as polarisation and health-care reforms, are hitting certain groups and communities in Europe hard. These groups include, amongst others, parents, people with low incomes and migrants, all of whom are experiencing many consequences of these changes in their daily lives. As a result, the international conference at AUAS attracted more than 250 participants from 40 countries with its topical theme: ‘Europe in transition: impact on occupation and health’.

society influences health

The conference addressed an important topic: occupational therapy is taking on an ever-more socially relevant role. Previously, occupational therapy and occupational science (the academic aspect of occupational therapy) were mostly about the individual: supporting people with physical or mental issues so they can then improve their health themselves.

Now, however, it is becoming increasingly evident that society itself has a strong influence on people’s health. This situation requires a new role for occupational therapy, putting greater emphasis on helping to emancipate groups, as well as on social justice, inclusion and participation. These new insights represented the focus of the international conference.

the power of dance

Four speakers shared their visions on the theme in keynote speeches. South African professor Roshan Galvaan made a strong impression with her plea for critical, activist and participatory research that leads to social changes as well as connections between people. In the afternoon programme, the artistic director of the Introdans dance company Adriaan Luteijn explained to his listeners how dance can connect, be accessible and hence be inclusive for everyone.

‘More restlessness, less balance’

On the second day, occupational therapist and researcher Margarita Mondaca made a critical comment: she called on occupational therapists to take their responsibility by supporting vulnerable groups in society through their research, as well as critically reflecting on how they put their profession into practice.

Professor of ethics and philosophy Ignaas Devisch of Ghent University then presented a plea for restlessness. According to Devisch, if restlessness comes from within, it creates motivation for giving meaning to one’s life. He questioned whether life actually needs equilibrium, as we so often hear nowadays: ‘Since when does a good life have to be balanced?'.


The conference presentations dealt with a very wide range of target groups, such as transgenders, people experiencing homelessness, refugees, elderly people and others. The key question was: what can occupational science do for these target groups?

As occupational therapy in Europe has been critiqued for its history as being developed mainly by Western, white, middle-class women, the international conference brought many new insights from places such as Chile and South Africa, where emancipation and social inclusion play a much greater role. Conference participants gained insights from a mix of keynotes, posters, presentations and discussions.

This bi-annual conference was organised by the Occupational Therapy programme and the associated Participation & Environment research group.