Occupational Therapy Month: How do occupational therapy practitioners help our clients ‘do?’

Author: Scott L. Homer, MS, OTR/L, Program Director, Occupational Therapy Assistant Program
Maria College

(Pictured above: Scott Homer and OTA students look at an anatomical model of the human hand.)

After thirty years in the profession of occupational therapy, the question I have been asked most often about my career is, “what is occupational therapy?” Occupational therapy practitioners work with clients of all ages in any setting where they need intervention. We help bring about positive, productive change in clients with physical, psychosocial, behavioral, and cognitive challenges.

Occupational therapy is different from other healthcare jobs. Students entering the field sense this and feel a spark of interest in learning what that difference is. Clients and family members who experience occupational therapy know this and develop their own idea of what the difference is. Other professionals acknowledge this and debate what qualities of occupational therapy practitioners separate them from other allied health disciplines. Those who work in the profession, occupational therapists (OTs) and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs), create that difference in their use of purposeful and meaningful interventions for the clients they serve. The confusion for many seems to stem from our choice of the word ‘occupation’ as the center focus of our therapeutic interventions. This word has become synonymous with vocation, but we use it in a wider sense to mean any activity in which a person engages. We ask our clients “what do you want to be able to do?” despite any disability or dysfunction that they face. For all the myriad definitions of what our profession’s specialty is, I think that the way we help people could be summed up in a two-letter action word: do.

How do occupational therapy practitioners help our clients do? The interaction between therapist and client comes from careful analysis of occupations, deep study of all aspects of human nature, and a caring empathy.  The beauty of an occupational therapy session is that it capitalizes on the client’s interests, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Foremost is the inclusion of the client’s desires through collaboration. We include the client in the planning of the interventions and that makes all the difference. Whatever we chose to employ as an intervention, we ensure purpose and meaning by listening to our clients and helping them determine what they need and how to accomplish it. The occupational therapy practitioner’s ability to provide a motivating and challenging intervention harnesses an inherent human desire to do. This empowers our clients to truly achieve their own well-being.

Occupational Therapy practitioners help people change for the better by showing them what they are capable of doing through their own actions. Think about the last time you were so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time, and felt carefree and excited by the challenge. What is it about engagement in a purposeful task that transports us from our cares and worries? One might conjecture that busying one’s hands and mind allows an escape from present concerns. Perhaps instead, we should acknowledge that we are never more in the moment than when we are truly focused on a purpose that has personal meaning to us. Our motor patterns and senses remember the past learning that has brought us to a level of skill at the task. Our hopes to complete a project allow us a goal-driven sense of purpose with an eye to the achievable future. Our present efforts are focused on accomplishing the task at hand. Thus, engagement in an occupation that has purpose and meaning allows functioning in the present, past, and future simultaneously. This is the transformative power of occupational therapy!

Portions of this post are derived from my chapter: Ensuring Purposeful and Meaningful Interventions in Foundations of Theory and Practice for the Occupational Therapy Assistant (2015, Amy Wagenfeld, Ed.).



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