Careers & Education

What is occupational therapy

By Susan Crowley
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Occupational therapy benefits people of all ages, from infants to the elderly.
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What is occupational therapy?

You may ask yourself, "What is occupational therapy and how is it different from physical therapy?" It differs from physical therapy in that physical therapy deals chiefly with restoration of physical strength, endurance, coordination, and range of motion through such means as exercise, heat or cold therapy, and massage. It focuses on personal and work activities, both in helping people with disabilities to find ways to master these activities and in using these activities to continue the goals of physical therapy.

The answer to "what is occupational therapy?" is further answered by saying that it benefits people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, and can improve functioning whether the disability results from a birth defect, accident, disease, aging, or drug or alcohol abuse or the ravages of war.

Geared to the particular functional level and interests of the individual, occupational therapy can take place in a variety of settings - including hospitals, the disabled person's home, mental health clinics, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, schools, and the workplace.

Ranging from teaching someone with swallowing difficulty how to eat and drink safely to showing someone how to use special tools to put on shoes and socks, close zippers, and button shirts and blouses, occupational therapy also can show someone in a wheelchair how to do cooking and housekeeping from a seated position. Its broad range of coverage also includes advice on how to make structural alterations in a home that will help accommodate a disability, as well as teaching someone who has lost an arm or leg how to drive a specially equipped automobile. Just think of all the vets who have had limbs amputated and need this instruction. Thankfully, they are receiving it!

The answer to what is occupational therapy is also in how it is used. Occupational therapy is also widely used with children with physical and mental disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. Helping someone with cerebral palsy (a disorder affecting muscle control) learn to use a computer to communicate and operate household equipment is another important facet of occupational therapy. Occupational therapists work with people with mental and emotional problems—such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia—to help them plan their activities in order to function more effectively in everyday life.

As efforts grow to integrate people with disabilities into all areas of society, the profession of occupational therapy has been expanding. The occupational therapist consults with public and private agencies to help make their work environment more accessible to the disabled and the workplace more accident-free.

Vocational rehabilitation and occupational therapy work hand in hand. The former is the actual process of preparing people with physical, sensory, emotional, developmental, or other disabilities for employment, placing them in jobs, and helping them cope effectively with their environment and to function as independently as possible. In the United States the term is generally associated with the programs operated by the states in cooperation with federal government.

Increasingly, however, vocational rehabilitation programs involve the private sector funded by insurance as well as by business and industry. It is really a name game in that one must receive occupational therapy before being placed in a work environment. It's really a question of what insurance or state programs call it! Be it occupational therapy or vocational rehabilitation, it is necessary for people with physical or mental disabilities to achieve maximum functioning and independence at home and in the workplace.

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