What is Occupational Therapy Anyway?

Hey readers! So I’m sure many of you are wondering….what the heck is occupational therapy?! I get so many questions about this from friends and family who know I go to OT school but don’t really know what OT even means. I know that not all of my readers are OTs or OT students (hi mom and dad’s friends!), so it’s time to clear up the confusion!

Derived from Pinterest “Seniors Flourish” https://www.pinterest.com/seniorsflourish/

First thing’s first, let’s define occupation. An occupation is really just any activity that occupies your time. It’s that simple! OTs are specifically interested in occupations that the patient finds meaningful and purposeful.

Sometimes I find OT hard to describe to people because it can be so diverse. SO, I decided that the best way to explain OT is to gather “elevator pitches” from a handful of OTs and OT students and list them here. In OT school, one of the first things we did was describe OT as an “elevator pitch” – basically a short description that you would give someone if they asked you what you do and you only have a minute or two to describe it.

My Elevator Pitch – Occupational therapy is a holistic, client-centered approach to patient care in which the interventions are made up of activities that are meaningful to the patient. OTs work to support, enable and empower individuals across the lifespan with various diagnoses to promote independence in any aspect of their life (eg. work, play, education, sleep/rest, leisure, social participation, activities of daily living, and/or instrumental activities of daily living). – Allison K., OT/s

Elevator Pitches From Fellow OT Students and OTRs

“Few career pathways afford their employees the opportunities to foster inclusion, celebrate humanity, and defy the odds as well as occupational therapy does. Occupational therapy declares dignity and worth, without condescension or pity, over those whom society casts aside; the field and its practitioners specialize in recognizing ability in patients while simultaneously providing support to enrich and enhance their quality of life. I look forward to joining a field that celebrates individuals’ inherent worth and supports them in living meaningful lives!” – Madeleine W., OT/s @motivated.ot https://www.instagram.com/motivated.ot/?hl=en

“Pediatric OT is helping kids reach milestones and facilitating the development of skills so they may become as independent as possible in their daily lives. We provide opportunities for kids to learn and grow through play, provide caregivers with education to help their little ones thrive, and foster hope for families.” – Alexandra L., OTR/L @otandoils https://www.instagram.com/otandoils/ 

“Occupational therapy helps people do what they want or need to do when they are inhibited by injury, illness, or other circumstances, from reaching their full potential in daily life. Occupational therapy clinicians, as part of the rehabilitation team, incorporate what’s most meaningful to the individual or community through a holistic, evidence-based approach. Occupational therapy clinicians are poised to: employ one-on-one or group interventions, evaluate environmental factors, identify useful adaptations, and facilitate specialized programs aligned with the health and well-being of the community.” – Taelor M., OT/s @taelormadeot https://taelor-madeot.com/  

“For us, OT is a service provided across the lifespan to assist others in excelling in activities that they want or need to do (such as everyday activities in self-care and home, education, work, leisure, play…). We help people reach their goals, achieve independence and all around fulfillment!” – Arianna M., OT/s & Nicole R., OT/s @the.island.ots https://www.instagram.com/the.island.ots/?hl=en

“Occupational therapy is a healthcare field dedicated to supporting people from all different walks of life – whether they have a disability, injury, or some other roadblock that inhibits them from living life to the fullest. OT enables these individuals to do the things they want and need to do that make life meaningful – play, self-care, household management, social participation, etc. I love OT because we get to look at the person as a whole and directly address the things that matter most to them!” – Anna W., Prospective OT/s @otinsight https://otinsight.org/ 

“OT is a type of therapy that focuses on rehabilitation through the performance of activities required for daily life, including the simple and complex tasks, from sitting up straight to managing a budget! This can include a broad range of diagnoses and ages. We help form goals that are customized to the individual to help them function at their highest level of independence possible!” – Brooke F., OTR/L @b_fisher816 https://www.instagram.com/b_fisher816/?hl=en 

“Occupational therapy focuses on typical tasks that you do every day. For example, we focus on tasks such as dressing, bathing, toileting, and other things like that. We make sure to address the strength, endurance, and balance you need to be able to return to your prior level of function with those tasks. Anything you typically do during the day, we work on it!” – Courtney L., OTR/L @courtneylindblomfitness https://www.instagram.com/courtneylindblomfitness/?hl=en 

“OT is kind of like physical therapy but involves using everyday activities therapeutically to promote independence as well as looking at the mind-body relationship. OTs can work with anyone across the lifespan with any kind of diagnosis to help them become more independent!” – Caroline B., OT/s @carolineb_ot https://www.instagram.com/carolineb_ot/?hl=en

“OT is a profession that helps people regain the ability to perform the daily activities that are meaningful to them. It covers diverse populations from children, to people with addictions, to geriatrics. OT meets people where they are and gets people where they want to be.” – Allie D., OT/s @patchesofot https://www.patchesofot.com/ 

Click here to read AOTA’s Definition!

Where Can OTs Work? – OTs can work is a variety of settings. Some of them include:

  • Hospitals
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Schools
  • Outpatient care
  • Hand therapy clinics
  • Early intervention
  • Day care/day habilitation facilities
  • Community centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Mental health
  • Home health

Who Do OTs Work With? – OTs work with people across the lifespan! This means that OTs can work with people from birth all the way until the end of life. Some conditions that an OT might see in practice include intellectual and developmental disabilities (eg. Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, learning disabilities, etc.), mental health conditions, substance use disorder, stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputations, arthritis, work-related conditions (eg. carpal tunnel syndrome), burns, and many more!

Why We Are NOT The Same As Physical Therapists – OTs frequently work alongside physical therapists (PTs) and speech-language pathologists (SLPs), but these are all very different professions with different strengths and intervention techniques! OT is frequently confused as being “the same as PT but with the upper extremity,” but this isn’t exactly true. Yes, this may be easier to say and explain than any of the elevator pitches listed above, but we are much more than that. From my understanding, PT is more focused on function in terms of mobility, while OT is more focused on function in terms of activities that are important to the patient. For example, a PT and an OT may both work with the same patient who experienced a stroke, but they will be doing different things. The PT may be working on mobility while the OT is working on money management and activities of daily living (dressing, brushing teeth, etc.).

Comment below what your elevator pitch is if you are an OT student or practitioner! Or, if you knew nothing about OT before reading this, comment below what your previous perception of OT was and how that has now changed. Thanks for reading!

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