How Occupational Therapists Change Lives and Make the World a Better Place


When asked the simple question, "What do you do for a living?" most health care professionals have a ready answer. Some require little explanation "nurse," "dietician," "dentist." Others, like "occupational therapist," require clarification to dispel the air of mystery. Fortunately, most experienced OTs are used to addressing misconceptions about occupational therapy and appreciate the chance to share their passion and testify to the value of their work.

The most common myth OTs must be prepared to bust is the assumption that they spend their workday helping people find employment. They don't. Yet, in order to understand the role these practitioners play alongside physical therapists, nurses, and speech pathologists on a multidisciplinary healthcare team, the word "occupation" must be addressed. In the context of a medical lexicon, an "occupation" is not a "job," but rather the set of activities that make up "the job of living." Or, specifically, the things many of us do every day, like getting dressed, sitting at the table for breakfast, or participating in a fitness activity. Some occupational therapists find it useful to categorize these activities into three areas:

  • Self-care: sleeping, eating, grooming, dressing, toileting
  • Work: effort exerted to do something, or perform a task
  • Leisure: free time to enjoy chosen activities or hobbies

Thus, the story of what occupational therapists actually do at work begins with helping patients succeed in activities that allow them to get the most out of life. Anyone might find themselves in need of occupational therapy. Whether as a result of aging, an accident, or a delay in child development, those who find their way to the doorstep of an occupational therapist are united by the challenge they face in performing daily tasks.

Examples of common OT interventions include:

  • Helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and in social settings
  • Helping individuals of all ages recover skills following an injury
  • Helping aging adults faced with physical and cognitive changes

The Occupational Therapy Treatment Plan

Occupational therapy practitioners and occupational therapist assistants are trained to view the patient from a holistic perspective and as a full participant in the treatment. While many patients share common challenges, treatment is highly individualized and may even include visits to the home, workplace, or school of a patient to determine how an environment supports or challenges, the treatment goals. The services provided ultimately fit into three stages:

  1. Gather individualized information during an evaluation, which includes the patient and family and a focus on goal setting
  2. Intervention, which includes the treatment recommendations that will help a patient improve performance and accomplish goals
  3. Outcomes evaluation to monitor how goals are being met and adjust treatment as appropriate

Often, patient lives are transformed as a result of occupational therapy. Many patients and family members view an OT who provides them with the confidence, skills, and ability to get more out life as a hero. One particularly poignant example comes from the life story of accomplished poet and author, Julia Tavalaro. After suffering multiple strokes, Julia was paralyzed at the age of 27. A young mother with no writing background, she spent six years paralyzed, unable to communicate, and treated essentially as brain dead though she was completely alert and unable to convey her cognizance.

That is, until she met the occupational therapist who helped her to indicate "yes" and "no" by looking up and down with her eyes. Later, therapy helped her utilize head movements to drive a wheelchair and, eventually, Julia was able to develop her aptitude for creative writing and find a poetic expression that led her to become a published author of the aptly titled poetry book, Look Up For Yes. Read the full testimonial and others on the American Occupational Therapy Association's site dedicated to promoting awareness of occupational therapy.

If you are an occupational therapist or if you have ever received occupational therapy, share your stories about the power this therapy has to changes lives.

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