Occupational Therapy Students Get Out the Vote for Patients

For University of Pittsburgh students Ashley Thompson and Spencer Sutter, Election Day was an opportunity to volunteer.

Thompson and Sutter, both second-year occupational therapy students in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, collected ballots from hospital patients in Pittsburgh as part of the group Ballots for Patients, and turned them into the Allegheny County’s Board of Elections. Ballots for Patients is a nonpartisan, volunteer-driven project affiliated with Election Protection. Since 2008, the group has helped hospitalized voters in the Greater Pittsburgh area complete emergency absentee ballots on or just before Election Day to ensure they can vote despite being hospitalized or living in a nursing facility.

Thompson and Sutter worked from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to collect votes from UPMC Mercy.

A person in a face mask and a scarf“In terms of occupational therapy, seeing people not being able to vote due to a medical issue is an injustice in its own way,” Sutter said. “If we can help as occupational therapists or as people in general to help facilitate that, then we should. I feel it’s our duty as medical practitioners.”

Sutter said he got the idea of volunteering for Election Day during his medical rotation at UPMC Mercy in October.

“The idea popped in my head of ‘If I were hospitalized Nov. 3, how would I be able to cast my vote?’” he said. “I planned to vote in person this year, and I thought of how many people might be facing that scenario.”

While Sutter and Thompson collected just 15 votes Tuesday, the positive feedback they have received motivates them. They also said the low collection total is because of the large number of mail-in voting for this year’s elections.

“We saw an online post from a patient reporting to be from UPMC Mercy saying he wound up in the hospital the night before, so he used an emergency ballot we collected. He said without it, he wouldn’t have been able to vote and was grateful,” said Thompson.

“We didn’t cast 200 ballots, but for each individual, it was meaningful to them,” added Sutter.

The two hope to branch to other areas of health such as rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes.

A person in a car with a jacket onSutter and Thompson are also co-founders of the student group TransformOTive Justice, whose mission is to educate and empower members of the Pitt occupational therapy community to become actively anti-racist in every facet of their lives. The group was started after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other victims of police brutality and oppressive systems.

“We wanted to give students in the occupational therapy program a space to vent and express their emotions about racial injustice,” Thompson said. “From there, we wanted to educate ourselves and our members on the history of racial injustice and develop skills to address this.”

Both thank faculty in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences on assistance with coordination and expert advice.

The two hope the group becomes a staple of Pitt occupational therapy after they graduate, and that more people in the medical field help with election efforts. They also encourage Pitt community members wanting to achieve meaningful change to reach out to their resources.

“When you have an idea, reach out to University members and see where they lead you,” Thompson said. “We were able to accomplish a meaningful volunteer experience by conveying our ideas and desire for action to our department chair, Elizabeth Skidmore. This week, we feel fulfilled knowing we purposefully put an action behind our idea.”