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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Occupational Therapy Defining Moments

Published September 8, 2014 11:29 AM by Debra Karplus
I frequently find myself in social situations where I'm meeting new people.  It always humors me when people say, "So, what do you do?"  typically respond by saying, "Well, I do many things, but I'm an occupational therapist by profession."

Recently, I searched online via and a few other reputable websites seeking a history of the definition. I couldn't find any sort of timeline, but it looks like the first official definition of our profession might have been developed in 1972 when I was in the midst of OT school; the definition was revised in 2008, and again in 2011. I believe there must have been other revisions, and also that the first definition of OT developed before 1972, but I simply couldn't find anything. All the definitions seem to start by saying that occupational therapy is the "therapeutic use of self...", and mention "activity" but then the wording changes and becomes more specific.

How I define occupational therapy to those who ask me really depends greatly on their experience and their previous knowledge of the profession, but I often start by saying that it isn't really about one's job or occupation. They might say, "Oh yeah, my niece is an occupational therapist", for example, but they still may not necessarily have a clue what an OT does.  r I might be talking with someone who says something like "An OT worked with my Mom when she had her stroke", or ‘My son receives OT at school".  The conversation typically evolves from those types of comments.

When being asked to explain OT to a non-medical person, I am sometimes asked if it is similar to physical therapy.  My response might mention that it sometimes depends on the setting, but that OTs and PTs have very different training and a distinctly different license.  I might give the example of a person who is having trouble with their mouth; they might need to see a dentist or they might need to see a physician or maybe consult with both, but that each discipline is quite different.

I know very little about how occupational therapy is practiced in other countries.  Not too long ago, I was chatting with a woman from Germany who was asking me about what I did for a living.  Perhaps I used too many examples related to activities of daily living; but I was put off when she responded by questioning, "You need a college degree for that?"  Admittedly, there is much plain old common sense that goes along with ADL training, but still one has to very clearly understand the disease or disability to know how to approach ADL training.  But, next time I will remember to put more emphasis on the schooling at the medical center and the physiology, anatomy, kinesiology and medical classes that one must take to successfully graduate as an occupational therapist.

So how do you define occupational therapy to people who ask you?  I welcome your comments to this blog post.

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I appreciate that you took the time to read and comment, Kevin.


Debbie Karplus, author

Debra Karplus September 12, 2014 11:18 AM

The Archives of Occupational Therapy journal started in 1922, and claimed that the benefits of occupational therapy had already been widely established (you can find the journal on Google Books).

The term "occupational therapy" started appearing in books around then (based on searches using  The earliest definition I found was in the 1922 Annual report of the Memorial Hospital Worcester, Massachusetts, on page 70, where the following definition is given: "Any activity mental or physical, definitely prescribed and guided for the purpose of contributing to and hastening, the recovery from illness or injury."  The quote was attributed to the "chief aid of the Walter Reed Hospital" who was not otherwise named.

Kevin September 9, 2014 5:55 PM
Santa Cruz CA

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