The Practice and Process of Occupational Therapy

One of the first questions people ask about someone upon meeting them is, “What do you do?” I am an occupational therapist. A lot of times this response gets me blank stares or responses such as “like a physical therapist?” or “Can you help me find a job?” Every once in a while, I will come across someone who is familiar with the profession because a family member has received services or they know someone who is in the profession. These people typically have insight to one aspect of the profession based on their own experience. Few people even within our professional communities are aware of all the things that fall into our scope of practice.

Occupational Therapist and Occupational Therapy Assistant consistently ranks in the top 25 jobs on most published job ranking lists in the US. In the most recent publication of the US News 100 Best Jobs of 2016, they ranked #23 and #25 respectfully. It is one of the fastest growing professions in the country approaching its centennial anniversary in 2017. Why is it so hard to explain what we do?

Born out of the humanist and moral treatment philosophies in mental health of the 18th and 19th centuries, occupational therapy was founded in the belief that a person’s health was influenced by “occupation,” attention to a specific goal. It became a recognized profession in 1917 with the establishment of the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy, which is now the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Through the past 99 years, the profession has gone through many evolutions from these early roots. Following World War I and II there was an increased need for OT in physical rehabilitation. Currently, there are emerging practice areas in workplace and environmental design. However the key tenets of the profession have remained the same through all of these facelifts. It is a profession that is devoted to addressing the mental, physical, and social aspects of clients to improve performance in all areas of occupation. Areas of occupation are defined as activities of daily living, education, work, play, sleep, leisure, and social participation everything you do to achieve fulfill your life role. Occupational therapists work in all settings from hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient rehabilitation clinics, mental health facilities, schools, homes, and community programs to address goals that are meaningful to clients, whose ages range from birth through the lifespan.

The current tagline established by AOTA, “Occupational Therapy: Living Life To Its Fullest®” emphasizes the focus of the profession on helping individuals achieve the highest level of participation in life activities and roles important to them through the promotion of health and prevention or remediation and accommodation for illness and injuries. As the AOTA approaches its one hundredth anniversary next year, it has focused on achieving our centennial vision of “. . . envisioning occupational therapy as a powerful, widely recognized, science-driven, and evidence-based profession with a globally connected and diverse workforce meeting society’s occupational needs.” In the nine years I have been a member of the occupational therapy profession, as a student and as a practitioner, I have watched the profession move toward this vision with improved research designs, use of social media for interconnectivity and inclusion in health policies developed at the state and local level.

However, we are still trying to explain exactly what it is we do. The new Vision 2025 unveiled by AOTA leadership at the Annual Conference and Expo April 7. 2016, aims to do that in more succinct terms. It defines the profession as such:
Occupational Therapy maximizes health, well being, and quality of life for all people, populations, and communities through effective solutions that facilitate participation in everyday living.

Finally a clear definition of what we do! Occupational therapists are the solution finders. We work with our clients, families and colleagues to develop solutions to best meet the needs of all the stake holders. See table below for more details:

Who can receive OT

Where can OT be practiced?

What does OT work on?

  • Activities of Daily Living (ADLs)
  • Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (iADLs)
  • Rest and Sleep
  • Education
  • Work
  • Play
  • Leisure
  • Social Participation
How do OTs address these issues?

  • Remediation of or accommodations for the following skill deficits:
    • Sensory Perceptual
    • Motor and Praxis
    • Emotional Regulation
    • Cognitive Skills
    • Communication and Social Skills
  • Environmental or Task Adaptation


In my next blog post, I will provide more information about how we achieve these goals including specific strategies we can use to support our clients in the classrooms, group homes and community. I love being an occupational therapist and working with people to find solutions to help them live life to its fullest. Next time you meet someone and they say they are an OT, I hope you can surprise them by telling them you know what they do. Trust me it is rare to find someone that does.