What is Occupational Therapy?

My definition of occupational therapy:

Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession that assists individuals with disabilities lead a more fulfilling, independent life through active participation in purposeful activities.

American Occupational Therapy Association (n.d.), hereinafter referred to as AOTA, defined occupational therapy as, “…the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations). Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent—or live better with—injury, illness, or disability.” AOTA also has great resources on defining occupation, occupational therapy, and occupational therapists. One of the AOTA Eleanor Clarke Slagle lecturers, Dr. Ellen S. Cohn (2019) gave the following observation which defined how well occupational therapy fits with healthcare settings, “Healthcare and rehabilitation now value well-being, function and participation in desired contexts.”

Occupations are the central theme to occupational therapy. Royeen (2002) said the following regarding the term ‘occupation’: “Occupation should be considered as the process of doing with meaning, and that activity should be the outcome.” Bolt (2019) says occupational therapists “are skilled in assessing the impact of developmental, physical and mental health conditions on a person’s ability to participate in activities that are important to them, and in devising intervention plans that facilitate occupational engagement.” One of these occupations is independence, as Collins (2017) says, “In some occupational therapy settings, the approach to promoting independence is to improve physical competence to reduce the need for assistance.”

While working as a Certified Nursing Assistant at a skilled nursing facility, I was fortunate to observe our occupational therapists help residents live more independently, and so I thought that is primarily what occupational therapists did. And occupational therapists do work towards independence, according to Collins (2017), independence is related to occupational therapist’s control over environment. Collins (2017) says, “at times we work with people to promote physical competence, at other times we help people develop emotional strategies, we adapt the environment and aim to make it more possible for people to exert control.”

But occupational therapy is more than just independence. It is also important for creating a meaningful existence. Bolt (2019) helped me acknowledge the varied ways in which occupational therapists can enhance mental, physical, and social well-being. Occupational therapists do this by assessing mental, developmental, and physical conditions that affect an individual’s ability to participate in meaningful activities. Then they create a tailored intervention plan to optimize that client’s performance in their chosen occupation. I think that this idea helped me see that occupational therapists go beyond independence and focus on the person holistically, which can also explain why there are so many definitions of occupational therapy. You are no longer looking at just one part of the problem to solve for the individual, you are assessing them within several contexts and creatively contemplating how to overcome other barriers to occupation, be it mental, physical and developmental.

I think that the AOTA (n.d.) has the most comprehensive definition which truly embraces this functional medicine model viewpoint. Their definition explains that occupational therapy works with individuals throughout the lifespan: from infants to older adults. This is an important distinction because my exposure to occupational therapy up to this point was geriatrics, and I think that people who are casually meeting an occupational therapist in one particular setting might not realize that occupational therapists work in a variety of settings with people of all ages. Another important distinction that AOTA (n.d.) makes is that “occupational therapy is the only form of therapy that uses the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations).” I think that this is a very important distinction to make because “occupation” has a variety of contexts. Royeen (2002) also emphasizes the importance of occupation, highlighting that therapy is a dynamic process, resulting in active engagement in the activities to get the most benefit out of therapy. This helped me see that a core concept of therapy is designing interventions that are meaningful and important for that individual.

Finally, my understanding of the profession was strengthened by watching the Eleanor Clarke Slagle video by Dr. Ellen S. Cohn (2019) says that the concept of occupation is “simultaneously incredibly complex and elegantly simple”. Cohn (2019) attests that the occupations we do throughout our day are “simple, and full of complexity, ordinary, extraordinary, and saturated with meaning.” This broad view of occupation can make defining occupation hard, but also simple. Cohn (2019) says that the daily occupations that are so simple to a person with full functionality can take on an entirely different complexity when there is an impairment. This idea helped me to see that every person, through every stage of life, has the potential to be met with a challenge that could affect the way they engage in these seemingly mundane and easy tasks. Therefore, the scope of occupational therapy would need to be broad in order to provide that relevance for those individuals from all walks of life

I hope that this comprehensive overview of “What is Occupational Therapy?” helps you in understanding the profession and provides you with help in defining your own version of occupational therapy.



AOTA (n.d.). What is Occupational Therapy? Retrieved August 27, 2020, from https://www.aota.org/Conference-Events/OTMonth/what-is-OT.aspx

Asserting Our Competence and Affirming the Value of Occupation with Confidence [Video file]. (2019, April 24). Retrieved August 30, 2020, from https://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Continuing-Education/AOTACE/Webcast/2019-Eleanor-Clarke-Slagle-Lecture.aspx

Bolt, M., Ikking, T., Baaijen, R., & Saenger, S. (2019). Occupational therapy and primary care. Primary Health Care Research & Development, 20, E27. doi:10.1017/S1463423618000452

Collins, B. (2017). Independence: proposing an initial framework for occupational therapy. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 24(6), 398–409. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ewu.edu/10.1080/11038128.2016.1271011

Royeen, C. B. (2002). Occupation reconsidered. Occupational Therapy International, 9(2), 111. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ewu.edu/10.1002/oti.159

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