More than just getting you back to work: the many, many roles of an occupational therapist

Occupational therapy

Don’t let the “occupational” half of the name fool you: occupational therapy is about much more than just your workplace!

Occupational therapy is actually about supporting people with the occupations of daily life (don’t look at me, I didn’t come up with the name). In other words, it’s about all the day-to-day activities at work, in school, at the shops and around the home that you probably don’t even think twice about.

While you may take them for granted, for many people living with disability, these ordinary tasks can be difficult. And that in turn affects their ability to participate in society.

Occupational therapy is all about giving people the support they need to work and live with an injury or permanent and significant disability. Sure, finding ways to help people return to work is a part of that – however, it also covers a lot more than just that:

  • Using public transport
  • Preparing food
  • Attending school
  • Driving
  • Doing household activities
  • Going shopping on your own

The list goes on and on. Occupational therapy is about finding ways to improve one’s ability to do these ordinary tasks and live their life, whatever their goals may be.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution

And it’s especially true when talking about people who live with disability.

Disability is a broad umbrella that covers a wide range of different conditions, physical or otherwise:

  • Physical disabilities
  • Birth defects
  • Permanent injuries
  • Degenerative diseases like dementia
  • Sensory disorders
  • Psychosocial conditions
  • Cognitive disabilities

What works for one type of disability might do nothing for a person who lives with another. Even among people who live with the same condition, an individual approach is essential. People living with the same disability can be affected in different ways, and have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, circumstance, and most importantly different goals.

Occupational therapy takes a personalised, one-on-one approach that focuses on assessing and individual’s strengths, weaknesses and goals, and tailoring intervention and support accordingly.

What sort of goals can occupational therapy help me with?

Helping you get back to work

If we’re going to talk disability goals, then we may as well start with the one that everyone thinks of!

When it comes to work, it isn’t just physical disabilities that need to be accounted for. For example, conditions such as autism can increase sensitivity to noise, which can cause extra mental strain, distraction and discomfort. Some neurological diseases may affect dexterity, affecting an individual’s ability to use a conventional keyboard.

To help with these, an occupational therapist can prescribe a wide range of different supports:

  • Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to help with sound sensitivity
  • Alternative text input options like voice recognition
  • Work environment modifications such as more ergonomic office equipment and furniture
  • Creating a work plan

Whether it’s a lifelong disability or a recent workplace injury, occupational therapy can help make the transition back to work, and help people with disability maximise their capabilities in the workplace.

Mobility

Imagine not being able to go down to the shops, commute, or run errands on your own without having to rely on others to get around.

Whether it’s driving or using public transport, many people living with disability find their mobility affected. Little wonder that one of the most common goals occupational therapy helps with is improving mobility and supporting an individuals’ ability to travel.

For example, an occupational therapy driving assessment might involve car modifications to make driving easier, or make being a passenger more comfortable.

It isn’t just cars, either. An OT can also provide public transport training that can include:

  • Anxiety management and stress tolerance strategies
  • Confidence building
  • Navigation and timetable training

The ability to access the community, work and perform other day-to-day activities relies on mobility, so these assessments are a pretty important part of

School and child development

OTs don’t just help adults – they can also support children and adolescents with their goals and needs.

A lot of that is working closely with schools to find ways to build a supportive learning environment where students living with disability can thrive. This might include developing classroom strategies with school administrators, prescribing assistive aids, or even sitting down one-on-one with the student to think of techniques to maintain focus.

Of course, school isn’t the only thing occupational therapy can help with.

Each child has certain developmental milestones that they need to hit as part of normal childhood development. Many factors can contribute to a developmental delay – and it isn’t always necessarily a disability.

Occupational therapists provide early intervention services, focused on identifying the causes of these developmental delays and providing interventions to support your child and facilitate healthy development.

Everyday tasks

Many conditions can affect your ability to perform the everyday tasks that you take for granted. Things like washing dishes, cooking, taking a shower and more can all be affected by a disability, and require support.

Occupational therapy interventions can help in a number of different ways.

Assistive aids and tools can help make the actual tasks themselves more straightforward and help compensate for a condition. This can also include prescribing home modifications to make everyday living easier.

Let’s look at a wheelchair user as an example. In addition to obvious additions like disability-friendly shower cubicles and wheelchair ramps, other things might need to be modified. Most kitchen benches are designed to be used while standing – they may need to be lowered for wheelchair users, and possibly even modified with a cut-out underneath.

Of course, it isn’t just big changes that can make day-to-day life easier. Case in point: door handles. Australian Standard AS1428.1 states that lever-style door handles are easier to grab compared to traditional doorknobs, making them preferred from an accessibility standpoint. In cases where individuals struggle to manipulate doors, an occupational therapist might recommend swapping them with more accessible lever-type doorknobs.

That’s just one example of a small home modification that can go a long way towards supporting individuals who live with disability and make everyday life easier.

In summary

Don’t let the name fool you: occupational therapy can help people living with disability in multiple areas of their lives. And it isn’t just by making big changes, either – an OT can prescribe small changes and adjustments to help you (or someone you love) with the occupations of day-to-day life.

If you or someone you know live with a permanent and lasting disability, an occupational therapist can be a big help in helping individuals living with disability participate in