Occupational therapists have been around since World War I. Soldiers would come home from the war and many were injured and disabled and could no longer work. Therapists, who initially worked in hospitals and military facilities trained these men in new occupations, and helped them occupy their time, thus the name occupational therapy. The profession has changed greatly in its nearly 100 years in terms of preparation, setting, and scope of practice. Early college programs focused on arts and crafts—therapists needed to learn pottery, weaving, and leatherwork to be able to teach these skills to patients. Today, the curriculum has a more medical emphasis.
Occupational therapists work in many different settings and perform a variety of tasks.
There are numerous settings where OTs work such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, facilities for adults with mental retardation, early intervention birth-to-three programs, home health, outpatient centers, psychiatric units, rehabilitation centers, specialty agencies such as United Cerebral Palsy, or in private practice. Some OTs teach at community college in the OTA program, or at a university; they often supervise clinical students. In any setting, OTs may present in-services education programs and workshops. And, sometimes OTs write and publish their professional research.
Occupational therapists evaluate, perform treatment, assess and fit patients for wheelchairs, train and obtain adaptive equipment and assistive technology, and instruct staff. OTs may even be asked to fit a vehicle for special equipment for a newly disabled driver or may become involved with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) either in your community, a workplace or some litigation.
As an occupational therapist, you’ll be part of a team with other health care professionals. Expect your co-workers to be physicians (MD), nurses (RN and LPN), physical therapists (PT), physical therapist assistants (PTA), speech and language pathologists (SLP), registered dieticians (RD), social workers (MSW), psychologists, activity directors, recreation therapist, and also occupational therapy assistants (OTA).
Occupational therapy is related but different from physical therapy.
People often confuse OT and PT. The training and license are completely separate for these two professions. A simplified explanation of the difference might be to say that OTs work more with upper body and PTs work more with lower body. For example, a patient who has had a stroke might receive physical therapy for walking, balance, and leg exercises and would also receive occupational therapy for re-learning eating, bathing, dressing, and grooming skills and for arm and hand exercises. But the training varies based of the setting, particularly when working with very young children.
You’ll need a Master’s Degree to become an occupational therapist.
Until a few years ago, a Bachelor’s Degree was all the schooling necessary to become an OT. But currently, you’ll need a Master’s Degree from an accredited OT program. Not all universities offer OT training; there are less than fifty Master’s Degree programs in the United States for aspiring OTs. You’ll take science classes such as physiology, anatomy and kinesiology, and also medical terminology and design classes, and numerous classes specific to occupational therapy technique. Additionally, you’ll be required to do two levels of clinical fieldwork with different supervision requirements. Then you must pass a rigorous exam that’ll certify you anywhere in the US. Finally, you’ll apply for an OT license from your state’s Office of Education and Registration; you’ll need a license for each state where you’ll work.
There are ample occupational therapy jobs for graduates of a two-year technical program.
If the idea of a Master’s Degree seems overwhelming, you can attend one of the approximately 130 accredited technical programs around the country to become an occupational therapy assistant. OTAs must graduate, take a certification exam that’s different than that of OTs and become licensed in the state where they’ll practice. OTAs can do much of what OTs can do, but cannot perform patient evaluations. Additionally, licensing guidelines require an OTA’s paperwork to be co-signed by an OT.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has data about salaries for OTs and OTAs around the country. Also, more information is available from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), from the National Board Certifying Occupational Therapists (NBCOT), or from the specific university or college where you will train to be an occupational therapist.
Occupational therapists will always find employment. Despite the economy, or the times, people will always be getting diseases and injuries. Become an occupational therapist and you can enjoy a long and lucrative career while making a difference in people’s lives.