When you tell people you’re an occupational therapist, their first question is probably, “What exactly do you do?” (perhaps after their attempt to clarify, “Oh so you help people get jobs, right?”).
An occupational therapist helps people do the things we take for granted. A person defines their own “occupations” as activities that are meaningful to them. Occupations don’t have to be related to one’s career at all (for that reason, the word “occupational” can be misleading). For a child, their occupation is playing and developing. For an adult, it may be anything from painting to playing with grandchildren to learning to code.
Imagine a client has a finger tendon injury. They’re experiencing extreme pain and difficulty buttoning their shirt, brushing their teeth and making coffee, meaning they now take twice as long to get ready in the morning. Sound like a lot of hassle before 9 a.m.? It is! But it doesn’t have to be.
Occupational therapists are trained to look at not just what a client is doing, but how they are doing it. An OT steps back and thinks, how can they do that differently so they can function? In other words, how can they make a cup of coffee without so much pain and time? You can recommend rest (maybe a splint, which an OT can make!), then strengthening, and finally practice using the finger.
Often, an OT teaches someone to be functional in the meantime – while they wait to heal. This part especially calls for creativity and resourcefulness. If the finger is unable to bend, you’ll have to teach them new ways to button. They might need adaptive equipment, like a tool to help them button that doesn’t require complete bending of the finger (which exists!). You, as an OT, are qualified to make that recommendation.
But even the idea of buttoning is a limited view of the role of an occupational therapist. Many people mistakenly believe OTs are limited to work on physical tasks. OTs are trained to work with people with impaired cognition, difficulty socializing and elevated stress, for example. So it’s well within their scope of practice to address skills like attention, memory and sequence, organization, social reciprocity, self-regulation, and self-awareness.
In addition to clinical settings, occupational therapists may consult with others to promote optimal functioning and independence. Urban planners, architects and engineers can consult with an OT who has knowledge of accessibility barriers and universal design (i.e., space designed to accommodate all users, with and without disabilities). An OT can consult on materials used in a playground park. For example, wood chips might be softer for children who fall. Pavement, while harder, accommodates children using wheelchairs or crutches for easier navigation.
For the record, an occupational therapist actually can “help people get jobs”. This might be appropriate if the client is in an adult day care center or vocational rehab setting. But the role of an occupational therapist expands far beyond employment assistance. An OT addresses psychological, physical and cognitive issues to help someone resume a more self-sufficient life.
About the Author
Laina Karosic, OTR/L, graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Rehabilitation and Human Services. She then completed her Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy at Ithaca College. She has worked with children and adults in clinics, homes, schools and community-based settings. Laina presented at American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA’s) national conference in 2014 discussing the role of Occupational Therapy in Sustainability. The emerging practice area of ergonomics is a particular niche of hers, and she is continuing competency and certifications within this area.