Next up in our Speaker Spotlight series, we’re thrilled to feature Irene Ingram. Ingram was kind enough to share the story of her early days as an occupational therapy practitioner (OTP) as well as the unique journey her career has taken. While she has made a huge impact in the field of occupational therapy (OT), and OTPs across the globe have benefited from her research and teachings, Ingram most strongly values the relationships she has built in her community and still lives and works in the small South Carolina town where she was born and raised.
Ingram knew early on that she wanted to work with children. She initially explored the field of physical therapy (PT) as a way to work in pediatrics. At the time, Ingram didn’t even know what OT was, but when it was introduced to her, she was immediately drawn to the field, knowing that it suited her better than PT. While she describes falling into OT rather haphazardly, she’s quick to point out that she feels quite blessed to have landed where she did, because “every day is a fun day and every day is a new idea.”
Ingram truly was a pioneer in the field of OT, especially in the southern United States. To give some perspective of just how limited OT resources were at the time, Irene’s license number is #34 in the state of South Carolina. After a brief stint in home healthcare, Ingram began her work in schools and developmental centers. While OT, in general, was relatively uncommon at the time, OTPs working in schools was nearly unheard of. When she began working with students with disabilities, she started with a blank slate (no equipment, not even desks in the school space) and was able to use her unique skill set to order the materials and build in the supports she felt best suited the students.
Ingram attributes much of her passion for helping children and adolescents achieve long-term quality of life to having lived through the deinstitutionalization period. She grew up in a time when placing people with disabilities in institutions was common practice. One of her fieldwork experiences even included living and working in an institution for six weeks. After seeing the desire of the residents for interaction as well as seeing the inaction and overall apathy from the OTPs employed there at the time, Ingram felt called to help the residents of institutions live a more fulfilling and purposeful life. With the birth of the deinstitutionalization movement, Ingram served on the teams to help place residents in community homes and today she still maintains relationships with many of those she served decades ago.
In addition to an overall lack of OT services, there was certainly a lack of research in the field at the time as well. In her early days as an OTP, Ingram says her own research occurred every day. She grew up in a resourceful family that made everything and created everything and her upbringing guided her work as an OTP. If Ingram saw an unmet need in one of her clients, she worked to create a tool or design a program to meet that need.
This desire to meet the needs of her clients and her community was most apparent when she opened her clinic, Therapeutic Designs and Services, in her hometown of Hartsville, South Carolina in 1980. After spending many years working in schools, Ingram felt a need to build a deeper connection on a family level by supporting families in their journey of raising and empowering their children. Ingram described another motivating factor for opening her clinic as having a quiet place where she could learn. While her clinic has since grown to include additional OT staff, speech-language pathology, physical therapy, and tutoring, Ingram still uses her clinic as a place to learn and problem solve on a daily basis.
This desire to continually learn and grow as a clinician, has allowed Ingram to design several of her own programs over the years. Ingram's research, development, and teaching has focused primarily on the emotional system, trauma, and regulation. Ingram’s work is client-centered and focuses on helping the individual heal themselves, take themselves to another level, get through their challenges, and understand how their own brain works. This approach is critical to the long-term success of individuals in their post-therapy lives.
When asked how she got involved in teaching, Ingram immediately began to chuckle and asked “you really want to know?” in her charming southern accent. She went on to explain that many years ago she started attending a healing church, which she admits was a bit out of her comfort zone at the time. One day, a church member named Sam, who had Parkinson’s disease, approached Ingram and said “Irene, you’re going to be going to Minnesota and you’re going to be asked to teach!” Ingram laughed off this comment, noting that she didn’t even know anyone in Minnesota. About two days later, she received a call with an opportunity to travel to Minnesota to work with the Camp Avanti team. During her time in Minnesota, Ingram was, in fact, asked to teach at the Richter PDP Symposium and she knew she needed to accept the opportunity.
Since her initial teaching opportunity in Minnesota, Ingram has committed much of her career to developing and presenting continuing education courses. Her courses represent her commitment to a holistic approach to the etiologies and treatment of a wide range of pediatric conditions, including her specialty area of treating infants with head and neck issues. Emotion to Motion: Firing and Wiring Productive Relationships Among Senses, Motor Skills, and Function focuses on developmental foundational systems of basic movement patterns. A Functional Neuromuscular Approach to Treatment of Oral Motor, Respiratory, and Postural Control of Head, Neck and Torso is designed to establish a protocol for evaluating and treating oral motor, respiratory, emotion, and postural problems as a first step in viewing children with oral control, developmental, and sensory processing problems. Advanced Integration Model (AIM) for Early Developmental Etiologies features co-speaker Patricia Oetter, MA, OTR/L, FAOTA and presents a model of development that begins at conception and goes through the birth process.
Integrative Education is also currently featuring Ingram’s Natural Postural Engagement for Pediatrics as an on-demand course offering. Natural Postural Engagement (NPE) uses many techniques to organize the child for body awareness, sensory processing, symmetry, midline, range of motion, rhythm, core righting, use of limbs, and oral motor efficiency to assist the child in accessing their original system of organization.
Most recently, Ingram has focused her research and course development on the deeper process of healing. She has delved into the process by learning how the neurological, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects, as well as the impacts of trauma interplay in healing. Ingram admits that she’s only scratched the surface of this area and she plans on committing the rest of her career to learning more and teaching others.
During our conversation, an overarching theme of the importance of building and maintaining relationships quickly became clear. When asked about the most important piece of advice she would give to OTPs, Ingram explained that you must build relationships and in doing so, identify strengths and personal goals. She went on to note that everyone has their own set of goals, including young children and infants. These goals may be as simple as wiggling or mouthing, but their journey has been set and Ingram notes that we must follow the child along on their journey and process of development and help them remove the roadblocks and belief systems that are interfering with the attainment of their goals. Ingram feels passionate that humans are created to heal, survive, and be successful and that our job as therapists is to try to get each unique person to be who they're supposed to be.
Ingram serves as a beautiful example of living out your passion and she strives to “have a good time every day.” She looks at each child she works with not as a problem to be solved, but rather as a new way to lift somebody up into who they’re supposed to be. Ingram admits that she’s never had a boring day on the job because “every hour is a new adventure and every person is so unique.”