What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational Therapy Month Image

At TherapyWorks, we “work wonders in children’s lives” with physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, along with diet and nutrition therapy.  And while most people know about physical therapy and speech therapy and nutrition, a lot of people aren’t quite sure what occupational therapy is.  

So, just what is Occupational Therapy???  

can be defined as the way we occupy our time. It includes the daily activities

Self-Care: sleeping, eating, grooming, dressing, and toileting

Work: effort that is exerted to do or make something, or perform a
Leisure: free, unoccupied time where
you choose to do something enjoyable (i.e., hobby, tv, sports, socializing,
read, listen to music, travel, etc.)

Occupation is how we spend our time; whether paid or unpaid, restful or fun,
obligation or choice.  It is that which
fulfills us, gives us purpose, and allows us to interact with, be productive,
and function in the world around us to the best of our ability.

If, at any point in our lives from birth to old age, an injury or disability prevents us from
effectively or independently functioning in one or more
“occupational” areas, then it is the job of the Occupational
Therapist to provide treatment.  OT helps
you learn or regain function, maintain skills, or make accommodations for
deficits you may experience.  In other words, so that you may live life to the fullest!
Occupational : Illustration depicting a road traffic sign with an occupational therapy concept  Blue sky background


 Since many people have never heard of OT, they
think it is a relatively new profession.  Actually
it began in the late 1700’s but was not formally named occupational therapy
until 1917.
In the 1700’s
the mentally ill were locked away in insane asylums and treated like
prisoners.   Phillipe Pinel, a French physician, and William Tuke, an English
Quaker, started to challenge this treatment and developed new beliefs about how
to improve the lives of the mentally ill.  
Phillipe Pinel began what he called “Moral Treatment and
Occupation”, defining occupation as “man’s goal-directed use of time,
energy, interests and attention”. He advocated for treatment based on
purposeful daily activities. He used literature, music, physical exercise, and
work as a way to “heal” emotional stress and improve the patient’s
ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL’s).

Tuke’s basic premise, called “moral treatment” was based
on the principles of “consideration and kindness”.  Tuke felt occupations, religion and
purposeful activities should be used to improve function and minimize the
symptoms of mental illness. He encouraged patients to participate in a variety
of employment or “amusements” (leisure activities) that they enjoyed.

These ideas spread to the US and from 1840-60 many American
hospitals began to use these new treatments. 
Arts and crafts activities were used for both relaxation and feelings of
being productive.  Many of these concepts
were nearly lost during the upheaval of the Civil War. In the late 1890’s, nurse
Susan Tracy successfully brought back the use of “occupation” with
the mentally ill. She began to specialize in this field and started educating
student nurses on the therapeutic use of activities as part of treatment. Tracy
coined the term “Occupational Nurse” and called the training
“occupation work”.

On March 15, 1917 Susan Tracy, Eleanor Clark Slagle of Johns
Hopkins Psychiatric Clinic and 5 others formed the National Society for the
Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT), which was later changed to the
American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).  The
founders were dedicated to building a role for occupational therapy in the
health care community that incorporated treating mind, body and spirit.

During and after World War I over 5,000
reconstruction aides were hired to provide occupational therapy to the war’s
wounded.  In the 1920-30’s training
programs were established at universities and OT expanded to include health
care and hospital based medical treatment. 
Thousands of returning soldiers with physical injuries
and mental problems from
WWII, Korea and Vietnam received occupational therapy as part
of the “Rehabilitation Movement”. During the 1950-60”s the practice
of OT expanded and therapists specialized, providing treatment for the mentally
ill in institutions, physically disabled adults and children with cerebral
palsy and developmental disabilities. Medicare covered OT services starting in
1965 and in 1975 The Education of the Handicapped Act was passed and
Occupational Therapy was included in the public schools as a “Related

Today Occupational Therapists continue to use
purposeful activities.  Children occupy
their time in play, learning and have a wide choice of “leisure” activities.  By creating fun challenges and involving
children in functional activities, arts and crafts, OTs help children gain
strength, learn to problem solve, become more independent in their own care
(dressing, bathing, chores), gain confidence and skills for social
interactions, become more independent and ready to learn new
skills and handle the challenges of the world they live in.

Suzette Werner Jones, OTR/L

President ,TherapyWorks, Inc.

from AOTA, Eleanor Clark Slagle lectures, Sensory Processing Disorder Website