“Occupational therapy… So you do physio?” and why you’re kind of right but only just.

I’m a new occupational therapist, freshly graduated from Queens University last year, and I honestly don’t think my family fully understands what I do. But most people don’t. In our first year of our two year Masters program, we spent at least a small part of EVERY course practicing explaining what an occupational therapist does. If you’re reading this and you’re NOT an occupational therapist, do you know what we do? It’s ok. Most people don’t. If you are an occupational therapist, please share what you do in your job down in the comments!

I figured that if I was going to write blog posts related to occupational therapy skills and subjects, I should probably give a little introduction to who we are and what we do.

When I was in a hospital placement, we were always mistaken for the physiotherapists on the team. My family often asks if I can fix their backs or help their pain. Can I do these things? Perhaps… we are trained to work with musculoskeletal injuries, to help with exercises, to help with mobility devices… but if you have a very serious back issue or a torn ligament I would refer you to see a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist who has further training in anatomy than I do. We do similar things, but occupational therapy focuses on helping a person adapt their daily routine so they can perform skills as easily as possible – we focus on the person and meeting them where they are in order to help them perform their daily activities, whereas physical therapy focuses on their injury and improving their movement.

So what exactly is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is a health care service that empowers people to solve the problems they experience day to day which interfere with the ability to do activities that are important to them (these activities are referred to as “occupations”). In occupational therapy, the definition of “Occupation” refers to things that we need to do, want to do or are expected to do in our daily lives. Things that we “need” to do might include going to work (so we can pay the bills), eating when we are hungry, and taking a bath. Something we want to do might include reading a book, going for a bike ride with friends, or exercising. And things we are expected to do might also include taking a bath, working, or perhaps contributing to cleaning the house.

These occupations are often broken into 3 categories – self care, productivity and leisure – which tend to overlap depending on how the individual person defines these activities. For example, often times the act of cooking a meal is seen as self care – it is something that we must do to care for ourselves and nourish our bodies. For others cooking a meal becomes categorized as productivity perhaps if they are working as a chef, or leisure if they like to experiment with recipes in their free time. The category of activity is not SUPER important, but what is important is trying to work on having an equal balance of productivity, self care and leisure activities in your life, and finding activities that are meaningful. Often people work too hard and don’t prioritize self care, don’t have hobbies to fill leisure time, or perhaps aren’t able to work which gives them a lack of involvement in productivity activities. When there is a lack of occupational balance, often mental health can suffer, we can feel unmotivated, a lack of meaning or purpose, worn out, or bored.

Who are occupational therapists and where do we work?

Occupational therapists (OTs) are professionals with either a 4 year bachelors degree or a 2 year masters degree which covers the broad aspects and regulations of our practice. OTs are required to have a minimum of 1000 hours of supervised fieldwork as part of our education, and a registration with their provincial organization. We are trained to practice holistically – not only focusing on the medical and physical limitations of disability or injury, but also the psychological and social factors that come along with their experiences that may affect the whole person. We also look at the barriers that the environments people exist in create for them, preventing them from engaging in their occupations. We recognize that people don’t need to be “fixed”, but are able to modify and learn new skills, use adaptive devices to engage in their activities, or create change in their environments to be more accessible.

Splints and hand therapy is a specialization of occupational therapy (this is me in grad school!)

Occupational therapists work in many different settings including hospitals, schools, nursing homes, care facilities, private practice clinics, rehabilitation centres, community mental health teams, vocational programs, insurance businesses, accessibility programs, lobbying organizations, etc. We work with people of all ages, with physical challenges, cognitive challenges and mental health issues. Occupational therapists also play roles in helping people return to work after an injury, and find access to accessibility devices and alternative services that they might need. We help people communicate their needs, learn new ways of doing things, gain skills and develop new ones, use materials that makes life easier, or adapt their environment to work better for them.

As an occupational therapist working with a young population, my clients range from 3 to 30 years old. With my younger clients I work on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social skills, handwriting skills, working on strategies to keep attention, skills for dressing, and schedule/routines. My older clients also work on keeping a schedule, working to have balance between self care, productivity and leisure, life skills and chatting about mental health issues and challenging thoughts. The beauty of occupational therapy is that every session is client centred and based on each individuals’ needs.

So when would you look for an occupational therapist? Here are a few instances:

  • if you have acquired an injury and need help resuming your every day activities (including getting back to work)
  • if you need a mobility or assistive device to improve your involvement in the community and your daily activities
  • if you have low or no vision
  • if you have arthritis, chronic pain
  • if you’re undergoing joint replacement surgery
  • if you’re struggling with mental health challenges
  • if your child has a behavioural diagnosis, challenges with school activities (social skills, handwriting, attention, motor skills etc)

Often you may be referred to an Occupational therapist if you are an inpatient at the hospital, through your surgeon, doctor, or child’s school. You can also find an occupational therapist and refer yourself if you think you may benefit from services. I have linked a couple resources below.

Thank you for reading! Please feel free to ask me questions if you need, and follow for further blog posts about occupational therapists!

Find an OT through CAOT (if you are in Canada) – https://www.caot.ca/site/pt/findanOT?nav=sidebar

Find an OT through COTO (if you are in Ontario) – https://www.coto.org/you-and-your-ot/how-to-find-an-ot

What is Occupational Therapy (Canadian Association of Occupational Therapy site) : https://caot.ca/site/aboutot/whatisot_test


Published by maiiflowerr

Pronouns She/Her/they/them. I'm a millennial just trying to make a difference in the world, and create space for people to accept themselves and live their best lives. My fiancee, Sydney, and I are mothers to our two goofy cats, and the queens of creative adventures. I am an Occupational therapist, a dancer and a yoga instructor with a passion for supporting people and creating community.

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