The Promise of Occupational Therapy

It is Occupational Therapy month in Canada. For occupational therapists, October is a month where we get to explain our widely-misunderstood profession to our colleagues, family, friends, and the occasional stranger who asks us what we do. Since becoming an occupational therapist in 2011, I’ve experimented  with asking people what they know about occupational therapy. The results have been varied, and in my opinion quite disappointing. Answers range from “you’re a job coach right?” to “ohhhh yeah, you’re an occupational health and safety guy – I worked with you guys up on the rigs”. On rare occasions I get responses that capture what I believe it is that OT’s do.  On a basic level, I believe that OT’s work to enable individuals and communities in engaging in meaningful occupations. Occupation refers to activities that individuals occupy their time with. The occupations we engage in are inextricably linked to our wellness and health status.

Why is Occupational Therapy so misunderstood? I believe it to be the product of decades of horrible PR. Not to finger point, but I think that OT organizations, academic institutions, and OT’s themselves have done the profession a disservice with years of vague and poorly articulated communications about what it is that we do and who we are.

For starters, I think we alienate people with our “clinical” language. The reason people think that we are either job coaches or workplace health specialists is because we use the word “occupation” liberally. Most occupational therapy terminology involves throwing the word “occupational” in front of common terminology used by other professions. Social justice has become “occupational” justice in my field. I am currently writing an “occupational” blog post. I can see the need to legitimize our profession through the establishment of terminology that other professions can use, but I’m sorry to say it – no one’s biting.

I believe that it is unfortunate that we are so poorly understood, because I feel that we have so much to offer with our unique training and perspective on health and wellness. We take courses that include human anatomy (I had a cadaver I would hang out with for about 6 hours a week), neuroscience, social policy, ethics, mental health and so on.

Our training prepared us to be well informed generalists. We may not know everything about one subject but we know something about most things related to health. Today, being a generalist is so necessary to solving the problems our world faces. It is becoming increasingly clear that the most effective change agents of the modern day are those who see problems from a variety of perspectives.

Our training also taught us how to learn. While we didn’t specialize in one particular field in school, we developed the skills to become life-long students – to develop the aptitude to become experts through our own process of self-guided learning.

Our training has taught us to see health and wellness as a dynamic and ever-changing interaction between people, their environments and the activities they choose to engage in. We have been oriented to a holistic view of health – it is a gift we have that often goes unrecognized. A quick survey of a newspaper health section reveals that scientists and researchers are looking more and more at the tie between what people spend their time doing and how it affects their health outcomes. A few OT’s are studying this, but not enough in my opinion.  If we don’t take hold of this burgeoning area of research and discovery, we will surely be left behind.

Interestingly, my city also has a history of identity crisis. Edmonton in many ways has struggled with the same confidence issues that Occupational Therapy has. The inferiority complex that seems to plague OT’s everywhere resonates with the young Edmontonian spirit. But things are changing in Edmonton. My work on the activation board of Make Something Edmonton, a community building initiative that seeks to address Edmonton’s reputation and image, has shown me what and how we can shift public perception. It isn’t as much branding as it is about demonstrating who we are through what we do. Make Something Edmonton collects and celebrates projects and initiatives undertaken by Edmonontians, most of which have made lasting positive impacts in both the local and global community. We aren’t trying to sell the world something we aren’t. We’re simply showing the world what we are made of – who we are – through our actions. I believe that this approach is the key to changing how people think about occupational therapy.

We can do without the narrow minded ad campaigns. Let’s start showcasing the amazing work that OT’s do through profiling them – by raising them up and letting the public  decide for themselves what they believe occupational therapy is all about. We need to get more OT’s in the media. It sounds silly, but maybe getting an occupational therapist on a show like Gray’s Anatomy will at the least expose the world to one aspect of our profession.

In regards to our public image, we also have serious work to do in terms of the demographics of our profession. A study done by the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists indicates that roughly 80% of occupational therapists are Caucasian females. The lack of diversity among OT’s is extremely unacceptable. For example, South Asian males (like me) account for only 0.25% of Canadian occupational therapists. As a health care profession, we need to meet the needs of our diverse country. Canadian diversity (in all of its forms) needs to be represented in the practicing OT population. McGill’s medical program smartly recognizes this issue and is doing something about it – we need to as well. The onus will fall on OT schools and our representative organizations in making an effort to actively reach out to and recruit from “diverse” populations – aka those who are not from the dominant group in our society. Just as we will need a diverse body of practicing OT’s, it is also imperative that we begin to see more diversity in OT school faculty. We need to show new generations of OT’s from all background what is possible.

So there you have it. That’s my rant. I’ve been stewing with these thoughts for a long time and am happy to get them out. I want OT’s to show people who they are and what they do. No more being shy and apologetic. Stop justifying why you do what you do. Just get out there and share the amazing stories of the things that you get to do as an OT.

As an aside, if you’re really interested in learning more about what OT’s do, come to the conference I am helping organize. It’s taking place on October 23-24 at the Robbins Learning Centre at the Royal Alex Hospital in Edmonton. Get in touch with me if you want more information.

Happy OT Month!

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