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Occupational therapist

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An occupational therapist (OT) is a person trained in or engaged in the practice of occupational therapy. The role of an occupational therapist is to work with a client to help them achieve a fulfilled and satisfied state in life through the use of "purposeful activity or interventions designed to achieve functional outcomes which promote health, prevent injury or disability, and which develop, improve, sustain or restore the highest possible level of independence."

Occupational Therapy is about helping people do the day-to-day tasks that “occupy” their time, sustain themselves, and enable them to contribute to the wider community. Its these opportunities to “do” that occupational therapy provides that prove important and meaningful to the health of people.


What occupational therapists do

The occupational therapy process includes assessment, intervention and outcomes. Occupational therapists engage in a holistic approach to assessing their clients which addresses the person, the environment and occupations (meaningful activities). Interventions used by occupational therapists to achieve greater independence by clients include rehabilitation of neuropsychological deficits (memory, attention, complex reasoning), motor function, sensory function (vision, perception of touch), and interpersonal skills (e.g. social skills). The medium of treatment usually involves the use of purposeful activities that have some meaning and relevance to clients' lifestyle (these are also called "occupations" and include routine behaviors associated with work, leisure and self care.) Occupational therapists also work in the field of mental health.

Another important area of intervention is by means of environmental modification to maximize performance (such as physical accessibility for wheelchair users or setting up environmental cues to compensate for memory impairment).

Occupational therapists might work in medical facilities (e.g. hospital, skilled nursing facility, outpatient clinic) or in more community-based settings such as a school, workplace, or the client's home. Some occupational therapists also conduct research to assess new techniques, rate the effectiveness of existing services and investigate other areas into which occupational therapy might be beneficial. Additionally, there are some non-traditional roles such as consulting with lawmakers and practice in low vision clinics, driver rehabilitation, home accessibility modification and ergonomic assessments of work environments.

How assistive technology is related to role of occupational therapist

"Occupational therapists are interested in the variety of ways that people "occupy" themselves through the day and across the life span. When the ability to engage in human occupations--working, playing, and self maintenance activities--are impaired because of accident, illness or developmental disability, an occupational therapist has something to contribute. Sometimes the contribution is using therapeutic techniques to strengthen a body part, and other times it is modifying the person's environment. Many times an occupational therapist recommends a piece of adaptive equipment. This powerful equipment, in the form of assistive technology, permits "purposeful activity" in the lives of persons with significant disabilities that was never before possible. That is because the technology is extremely powerful and adaptable. The basic skills and knowledge of an occupational therapist with the addition of assistive technology knowledge are an unbeatable combination." [1]

"Assistive technology compensates, as nothing else can, for the deficits created by motor and sensory handicapping conditions. It bridges the gap between helplessness and functional independence and allows people to engage in meaningful, purposeful activities. The individual with a disability just needs the AT device and the instruction and ability to use it to participate in all these of purposeful activities in our modern life." [1]

Certification Requirements

Occupational therapists are certified by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). All certified occupational therapist practitioners hold the title of Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR), or Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). Prospective certificants are required to pass a certification exam given by the NBOCT. In addition, starting in January of 2007, to become eligible for certification, prospective OTR candidates must now obtain a degree from an accredited occupational therapy education program at the post-baccalaureate degree level. Prospective COTA must hold a degree from an accredited occupational therapy program at the associate or technical degree level or higher. Additionally, appropriate clinical fieldwork requirement must also be met. Most graduate level programs require at least six months of clinical fieldwork upon graduation. OTR and COTA certification is valid for a period of three years, and in order to maintain certification status, certificants must satisfy a 36-unit requirement of professional development activities every three years. [2]

In addition to being certified, most states also require licensure in order to practice within the state. However, state licenses are usually based on the results of the NBCOT certification exam and often require ongoing continuing education.

Professional Societies

In the United States, the major occupational therapist professional society is the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). AOTA was established in 1971 and is devoted to representing the interests and concerns of occupational therapy practitioners and students, as well as improve the quality of occupational therapy within the US. [3]

Worldwide, the major occupational therapy professional society is the World Federation of Occupational Therapist (WFOT). Started in 1951, the WFOT is devoted to promoting occupational therapy as an art and science internationally. The Federation supports the development, use and practice of occupational therapy worldwide, demonstrating its relevance and contribution to society. [4]

How to become an OT

According to the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), there are currently 152 colleges and universities within the United States offering an accredited entry level program in occupational therapy. [5] Some of these programs offer a joint bachelor’s/master’s program, while others are strictly a master’s level program. For entry into a master’s level program, an undergraduate degree from an accredited 4 year college is required. Furthermore, basic prerequisite course work is also required, usually including:

  • General Biology with lab
  • Organic Chemistry with lab
  • General Physics with lab
  • Human Anatomy with lab
  • Human Physiology with lab
  • Statistics and calculus
  • Psychology and social sciences

On average, a master’s level occupational therapy program takes 2.5 years to complete. [6]

Because of the multidisiplinary nature of occupational therapy, a person can enter an occupational therapy educational program with a bachelors degree from other disciplines.

How to find an OT

There are many places to look when searching for an occupational therapist. Some of these include:

  • Yellow pages, under “rehabilitation”
  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Private practices
  • Ask your doctor
  • Search the internet
  • State licensure boards

When you find an occupational therapist, you should always check his or her credentials to verify the practitioner is certified and licensed (if licensure is required by your state). Proof of valid certification can come in the form of a certificate issued by NBCOT or a wallet-size certification card, both listing the name of the practitioner and their certification renewal date. [7]


  2. 2007 Certification Examination Handbook and Application by NBCOT

Author: Stephen Gaw
Affiliation: MSPO, Georgia Tech