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What is Occupational Therapy? And how does it help people?

Hi. I’m Kim, and I’m an Occupational Therapist.

This is the first blog of a series that I’m writing about Occupational Therapy (OT), and it will cover

  • A little bit of OT history

  • What is OT (don’t worry lots of people have no idea)

  • How OT can help people

OTs work to promote health and wellbeing through occupation – the everyday things or activities that we do individually, in communities and with our families to occupy time and bring purpose and meaning to life. Occupations include things that we want to, need to, and are expected to do. They include all aspects of life; things such as eating, showering, sleeping, getting dressed, resting, working, playing, hobbies, social activities, self-care, health management and just about anything else you can think of.


The early beginnings of OT lie during the moral treatment era in 18th century Europe, where psychiatric institutions began to prescribe productivity and leisure activities as treatment for patients – using the active involvement of hands and minds. This approach continued over time and saw the early training of occupational aides, women who were trained during World War I to help large numbers of returning wounded servicemen resume their daily living activities. OT developed further during and after the second World War, as therapists worked with returned servicemen experiencing neurological, psychiatric, and orthopaedic concerns.

An OT adjusts a foot pedal on a bicycle jigsaw – combining active engagement in a task with exercise rehabilitation of an injured leg – 1948 (US Army).


The World Federation of Occupational Therapists was established in 1952 to promote, develop and maintain the practice and standards of occupational therapy. By 1970 university programs were extended to 4 years, with a growing holistic scope of education across various traditional disciplines, including nursing, physical therapy, psychiatry, rehabilitation, self-help, social work, orthopaedics and more. Today, there are more than 630,000 occupational therapists worldwide working to promote a holistic view of health through occupation.

The diverse training, skills and knowledge that OTs graduate with empowers us to construct occupational perspectives for each person we work with, considering all the everyday things or activities they need, want, or must do to create a meaningful life, be who they are and engage with family, friends, communities, society, and culture at large. OT focuses on the way each person’s life is woven around their meaningful occupations, or how and where and with who they do the things that matter most to them and how we can improve them. We work to understand what is most important to each person, and then together to improve the quality of engagement and participation in their meaningful occupations.

OTs can be found in a wide range of practice areas and settings, with some examples including; paediatrics, mental health, hand and upper limb rehabilitation, stroke and neurological rehabilitation, ergonomics and safety science, physical rehabilitation, healthy ageing and community access. There are many more common areas of practice, such as driving, autism, disability, cardiac health, occupational justice, sexuality and intimacy, just to name a few. Because we work to support participation and engagement in the occupations of life, we’re found everywhere!


As we work to understand what matters to each person we work with, OTs build a holistic perspective of their client's lives, together setting goals and evaluating participation, engagement and performance in the things that are most important to them. We choose OT processes, assessments, and models to help us build this holistic perspective, selecting options to best understand the individual person, their environments, and occupations we are working with. Or, put more simply, where, why, how, and with whom the client does what is important to them, and their desires surrounding engagement, performance, and potential in these.

Perhaps a short (fictional) example would be useful – this includes approaches that I incorporate at Featherstone;

Steve came to OT during rehabilitation of a left knee injury. His wife Sharon is currently 7 months pregnant with their first child, and Steve wants to provide her more support than he can now. He is happy with the Physiotherapy and progress of his knee rehabilitation but is having trouble with getting in and out of the car to drive Sharon to appointments, with his lower back starting to get a little sore.

Together the OT and Steve discussed the possibility of alternate transport or drivers. They determined that it was important for Steve to fulfil this role, and the OT asked about the type of car, its gearbox, seat, and steering wheel. She went down to the carpark and watched Steve get in and out of the car. She suggested some changes to the movement, seat position, steering column/wheel adjustment, along with the temporary use of a swivel cushion and Handy Bar to help reduce torsion through the lower back during the movement. They worked together using neuromuscular education techniques and skilled somatic coaching to help Steve increase awareness of his body and its adaptability during this healing process.

At their next appointment they discussed how the environmental adaptions (to the car) and the personal inputs (body awareness, adaptability) had affected the important role and occupation of caring for and driving Sharon to appointments. Steve was feeling much more confident in his left knee and his lower back pain had reduced significantly. As a result, he felt much more secure in his ability to care for Sharon and provide her with transport and increasing support moving forward.

Look out for Part 2 of the OT blog series which delves deeper into the OT process at Featherstone as I work with Kacey!

Reach out if you have further questions for me via email; I want to support you in finding your potential and performance in the activities, life roles or occupations that are important to you. If they’re important to you, they’re important to me.

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