Careers & Education

The history of occupational therapy

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With more and more vets returning with disabilities, occupational therapy joins physical therapy as an important recovery tool.
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The history of occupational therapy

The history of occupational therapy began many, many years ago. The importance of activity as a means of regaining health and function had been known for centuries and had been especially used in the treatment of mental disabilities. However, occupational therapy only became established as a formal profession in 1917, when services were needed to help returning soldiers regain function after World War I (1914-1918). Occupational therapists have either a bachelor's or master's degree in occupational therapy.

Training includes course work in biology, psychology, and the theory and practice of occupational therapy, including clinical experience. Following training, an occupational therapist must pass an examination administered by the National Board for the Certification of Occupational Therapists to become certified as a Registered Occupational Therapist (OTR).

Because disabilities are often the consequence of accident, disease, or a congenital condition, rehabilitation begins with intervention and appropriate medical services. Surgery might be required, for instance, to correct a heart problem. In other cases, treatment is supportive and designed, for example, to reduce the effects of arthritis, to restore function lost as the result of a stroke, to treat the motor disorders of cerebral palsy, to decrease seizures from epilepsy, to minimize the effects of pulmonary disease, to retrain persons with speech disorders, to assist the deaf in lip-reading or the proper perception of sound through hearing aids, or to teach the blind to read the Braille System.

A sometimes overlooked aspect of rehabilitation involves the emotional concerns that might be associated with disability. Psychotherapy and vocational counseling can do much to help a person cope with the changes that have occurred as a result of the disability and restoration of partial function. The history of occupational therapy shows how this aspect of treatment has become increasingly important.

Placement in a job is the next step in rehabilitation. Although a person might have acquired great facility in the use of supportive devices, he or she might require training in new skills under new working conditions. People who never acquired a skill or who have very limited skills because of disability, or because of disadvantages of environment or education, might require training in work appropriate to their capacities. Formal schooling might remove barriers for those with basic ability.

Adaptation and use of special tools or equipment can also help. The elimination of barriers through the use of ramps for people who cannot climb stairs, automobiles that are specially equipped for those with limited use of their limbs, and other adaptations can add to self-sufficiency and independence. Rehabilitation counselors who provide follow-up services can help to assure the disabled person's success in competitive employment.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy and rehabilitation therapy are all intertwined in the history of occupational therapy—each of equal importance in achieving the ultimate goal of making an individual as self sufficient and productive as possible.

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