Pioneer in sexual health for persons with disabilities leaves a lasting legacy

    The late Benita Fifield’s (Dip. OT ’70, B.Sc. OT ’72, M.Sc. Family Studies ‘81) planned gift provides support to the Department of Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine

    By Communications with contributions from Dr. Lili Liu, chair, Department of Occupational Therapy on January 11, 2018

    Maintaining a healthy sexual relationship can become daunting for someone who has a disability, and often health-care providers are not sure how to support their patients in this aspect of daily life.

    For Benita (Mayers) Fifield, promoting positive attitudes towards persons with disabilities, and raising awareness and support around sexuality for those with disabilities was not only a passionate professional interest—it was also personal.

    Benita’s husband Orville had quadriplegia. She attended a workshop on human sexuality and disability in Indianapolis in the 1970s, and went on to dedicate her career to this cause. 

    “At the time, no one talked about sexuality with young men who were quadriplegic or paraplegic. Still, she did not realize that she was a pioneer,” said Dr. Lili Liu, chair, Department of Occupational Therapy.

    Fifield became a trailblazer in the area of occupational therapy and sexual health research and education. She led an accomplished career as an occupational therapist, certified sex educator and professor. 

    Beginning in the 1970s, the occupational therapy curriculum transitioned from predominantly crafts-based to focus on theory, appliances, wheelchair prescriptions and technologies. Faculty members branched out from the classroom and started to conduct research and engage in community activities. 

    “Fifield’s advice for students was, ‘As therapists, we listen to what our clients want from their lives.’ Her words of wisdom are timeless and are central to the practice of occupational therapy,” said Liu.

    Over her more than thirty-year career, Fifield made numerous contributions to the development and growth of the University of Alberta’sFaculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and Department of Occupational Therapy. She was active in many roles including educator (‘63 –’90), head (‘73-‘76) and later chair (‘82-‘83) of the department, and she served as acting dean of the faculty from 1979 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1985. Outside of the university, she established a private practice and conducted workshops and seminars on sexual counselling skills for professionals. 

    “Benita’s commitment to an occupational therapy holistic perspective led to opening the eyes of health professions to the ‘sexual being’ of persons with permanent disabilities and changed lives,” said E. S. Brintnell, professor of occupational therapy and long-time colleague of Fifield.

    Fifield passed away on April 28, 2016 and her passionate dedication to occupational therapy lives on in her generous donation to the Department of Occupational Therapy. The bequest from her estate will not only support the existing Benita Mayers and Orville Fifield Scholarship in Sexual Health, which recognizes a student with an interest in the fields of sexual health or sexual education each year, but will also create the new Benita Fifield Endowment, which will support the general purposes and greatest needs of the department in perpetuity. 

    Fifield’s lasting legacy within the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and the field of occupational therapy will ensure that her life-long pursuit to bring awareness and support to those living with disabilities will continue with future therapists.