What is occupational therapy?

30 March 2021

Most everyone has heard of physiotherapy and what it entails, but what exactly is occupational therapy (OT) and how does it differ from physio?

occupational therapy
Find out more about studying occupational therapy

While physiotherapy evaluates, helps to maintain and restore physical function, occupational therapy helps to solve the problems that interfere with a person’s ability to do everyday things, such as getting dressed, bathing, washing dishes, eating, and other tasks most of us take for granted. Occupational therapy can also prevent a problem or minimize its effects.

Usually, occupational therapists are sought when a disability, injury, illness or other problem limits someone’s abilities to care for himself, participate in work, or just enjoy regular leisure time or hobbies. These skills and regular activities are so important to us as people that they often describe how we view ourselves—we identify with our jobs and activities. When disability or injury prevents someone from being able to accomplish a simple, everyday task such as buttoning a shirt, it can affect how he or she feels about himself. That’s where an occupational therapist comes in.

Occupational therapists are highly trained health-care professionals, and they define an occupation as much more than a chosen career. Occupation refers to everything that people do during the course of everyday life, including feeding and dressing themselves. Everyone has many occupations that are essential to our health and well-being.

What do occupational therapists do?

According to the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, “occupational therapists use a systematic approach based on evidence and professional reasoning to enable individuals, groups and communities to develop the means and opportunities to identify, engage in and improve their function in the occupations of life. The process involves assessment, intervention and evaluation of the client related to occupational performance in self-care, work, study, volunteerism and leisure. Occupational therapists may assume different roles such as advising  on health risks in the workplace, safe driving for older adults, and programs to promote mental health for youth. Occupational therapists also perform functions as manager, researcher, program developer or educator in addition to the direct delivery of professional services.”

Depending on the particular situation, an occupational therapist will check

  • what one can and cannot do physically (including strength, coordination, balance, or other physical abilities);
  • what materials are used in the occupation (e.g., cooking utensils, clothing, tools, furniture, etc.);
  • what one can and cannot do mentally (coping strategies, memory, organization skills, or other mental abilities);
  • the social and emotional support available in the home, school, work and community; and
  • the physical setup of the house, school, workplace, classroom, or other environment.

An occupational therapist can help by showing someone how to do something with the abilities he/she has, including improving memory, dressing, cooking, cleaning, getting around the house, going out of the house, travelling, and grocery shopping—just to name a few! But that’s not all. Occupational therapists are also trained how to help others cope with their disabilities. OT can help with coping strategies, strength, coordination, and confidence, and recommend changes to environments that will be helpful. Community support may also be available, and the occupational therapist will also assist with finding specialized transportation, support groups, and funding agencies.

Where do occupational therapists work?

Occupational therapists are generally employed in community agencies, hospitals, chronic care facilities, rehabilitation centres and clinics, schools, social agencies industry or are self-employed. While some occupational therapists specialize in working with a specific age group, like the elderly, others may specialize in a particular disability such as arthritis, developmental coordination disorder, mental illness, or spinal cord injury.

Studying occupational therapy in Australia—practicing in Canada

Canadian students who wish to practice as an occupational therapist upon their return to Canada should visit the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists website for accreditation and certification information. Several of OzTREKK’s Australian universities offer graduate-entry OT degrees that will allow you to practice in Canada:

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Think you might like to study occupational therapy? Contact OzTREKK’s Occupational Therapy Admissions Officer at rehabsci@oztrekk.com or call 1-866-698-7355 for more information.

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