issue Spring 2021

'I Feel It's My Responsibility': CHP Distinguished Alumnus Awardee Seeks Increased Diversity

By Judy Masterson, Photos by Sean Proctor
Leython Williams, PT, DPT ’12

Leython Williams’ father always told him “never forget where you came from,” advice that has taken on deeper meaning as Dr. Williams gains personal and professional experience.

“As a child, I thought he meant ‘don’t forget the people close to you,’” Dr. Williams said. “But as an adult, I understand his words to also carry a community focus. My desire has expanded from being the best PT I can be to helping our profession at large be the best it can be. I want to challenge the healthcare professions to be more representative of the communities that we serve.”

Leython Williams, PT, DPT ’12, recipient of the College of Health Professions Distinguished Alumnus Award, assists a patient.

Dr. Williams is a physical therapist and facility manager for Athletico Physical Therapy in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb not far from the East Side of Detroit, where he was born and raised. While he grew up in the inner city — where the collapse of the auto industry brought high unemployment and hastened the decline of already segregated, underfunded schools — he attended better-resourced, private schools in the suburbs.

“Attending predominantly white schools while playing sports in the predominantly Black community where I lived allowed me to appreciate perspectives that were different than mine,” Dr. Williams said. “I grew up with a sense of cultural identity while also learning to value the differences presented in various cultures and socioeconomic classes. It gave me a balance in my perspective that I think is often missing in conversations around diversity, inclusion and equity.”

Dr. Williams, who played Division 1 football at Central Michigan University, stands with colleagues Ally D’Abbinale, PT, DPT, and Jessica Michal at Athletico Physical Therapy in suburban Detroit.

Today, Dr. Williams is co-chair of the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Council at Athletico, which operates 500 clinics in 12 states. He is also founding president of the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Physical Therapists and serves as a member of the External Advisory Board for the Physical Therapy Department at RFU. In 2020, he participated in an American Physical Therapy Association Diversity and Inclusion panel and webinar.

“African Americans make up 13% of the population but just 3% of physical therapists in the United States,” Dr. Williams said. “I feel it’s my responsibility to use my unique experience to foster healthy discussion around how we can build a more diverse PT profession and healthcare industry at large. It starts with exposure. Other than my mother, who was a nurse, I didn’t see diversity in the health professions growing up. Even in my shadowing, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me or came from the same background or who understood the unique challenges that exist in the community I came from.”

Dr. Williams, who works to build a culture of teamwork and purpose among his fellow PTs, frames the quest for diversity in the health professions around resource equity.

Shown working with a patient in early 2021, Dr. Williams said his first visit to RFU made him feel “extremely warm and welcoming. Coming from out of state, I wanted to be somewhere where I felt I could thrive.”

“If I attended my neighborhood schools, I’m not certain that I would have gotten on the PT track,” he said. “It’s not an inability to perform well in the sciences that makes students feel incapable — it’s a lack of resources and representation. When we discuss equity, we’re not talking about changing requirements. We’re saying, ‘Give equal resources. Provide the necessary tools to be successful.’

“Equality means giving everyone the exact same thing,” Dr. Williams added. “Equity speaks to giving based on what is specific to one’s need. The unique disparities that exist in many underserved communities are consistent with their unmet needs.”

Judy Masterson is a staff writer with the RFU Division of Marketing and Brand Management.