Picking a career can be a major source of anxiety. Not only do you want one that offers room for professional growth; you also want to know that there are different paths you can take should you want to try something new … because let’s face it, not everyone wants to do the same thing day in and day out.
Fortunately, if you’re the kind of person who thrives on helping others, there IS a career option for you — one that offers variety, healthy earning potential, and plenty of opportunities to grow and be creative. Add growing demand nationwide, and it’s not hard to see why so many people love being in occupational therapy.
Today, we’ll be exploring the six occupational therapy practice areas, as well as some of the places you can find work as an occupational therapy assistant (OTA). First, though, we should talk about the field of occupational therapy more broadly.
Occupational Therapy: Misconceptions vs Reality
There tends to be confusion around occupational therapy. Contrary to many misconceptions, being an occupational therapist (OT) or OTA does not mean you help people find jobs — nor does it mean you exclusively treat work-related injuries. That’s not to say OTs and OTAs don’t help with these. It’s just that occupational therapy encompasses so much more.
In the occupational therapy field, the term “occupation” refers to the everyday activities — or activities of daily living (ADLs) — that people want and need to do to lead healthy full lives. In this sense, an occupation could be any number of tasks, big or small — making dinner, walking the dog, writing, or going to school or work, just to name a few.
OTs and OTAs work together to help clients overcome injuries, illnesses or disabilities so that they can do the ADLs that are important to them, making this not only an incredibly fulfilling field to work in but also one with a lot of variety. Being in occupational therapy, you can work with clients at every stage of life and in a number of settings, including:
- Community centers
- Nursing homes
- Outpatient provider offices
- Rehabilitation centers
“I could go pretty much in any direction,” says Tiffany, a December 2018 graduate of St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program, on why she chose to pursue occupational therapy with a kinesiology degree. “There’s a lot of different opportunities out there to where, if I get bored or maybe want to try something new, I can use my OTA credential in a different spot but still do my same job.”
Confused about the difference between occupational and physical therapy?
You are not alone. We explain the differences and similarities between these growing fields.
The Six Occupational Therapy Practice Areas Explained
OTs and OTAs deal in six primary practice areas, assisting clients of all ages. As we discuss each practice area, keep in mind that while some OTs and OTAs choose to specialize in certain practice areas, others prefer to work with clients across the practice areas — making no two days the same.
1. Children and Youth
There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to occupational therapy’s many applications in the area of children and youth; and with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting an increase in developmental disabilities in children, it’s never been needed more. In addition to treating developmental disorders such as autism and Down syndrome, occupational therapy can help address a wide range of issues, like bullying, childhood obesity and coordination issues. Some of the interventions OTs and OTAs employ with children might surprise you, too. Often, what appears to be basic play nonetheless has a very specific intent, such as strength training or muscle development.
- Providing early intervention therapies to a non-verbal child
- Working with a child who lacks the muscle coordination to hold a pencil or pen learn to write
- Using equine-assisted therapy to help a child on the autism spectrum overcome social anxiety
2. Productive Aging
People are living considerably longer today than in the not-so-distant past, and while there’s no denying this is a good thing, the sharp increase in life expectancy presents many new challenges for the healthcare field. According to the Institute on Aging, older adults made up 11 percent of the U.S. population in 1985. By 2030, older adults are expected to make up 20 percent of the population. What’s more, the institute says that in 2009, a quarter of Medicare recipients 65 or older experienced difficulty with an ADL.
- Making home modifications aimed at preventing falls so seniors can remain at home longer
- Identifying and educating clients on new ways of doing everyday tasks, such as putting on shoes
- Helping loved ones to cope with Alzheimer’s and dementia
- Assisting community centers in providing age-appropriate activities and accommodations
3. Health and Wellness
It’s no secret that when it comes to eating healthy and getting enough exercise, the United States falls short of many other developed countries, and the statistics are downright shocking. At the same time that obesity and other chronic diseases have become major health crises, America’s opioid addiction epidemic is regularly front and center in the news.
- Helping chronic pain sufferers cope with and treat pain without the use of opioids
- Teaching low-income families living in food deserts about healthy eating through involvement in a community garden
- Treating eating disorders
- Helping diabetics manage better manage their disease
4. Mental Health
The statistics on mental health in the United States are alarming. In any given year, about one in five American adults experience a mental illness, with nearly a quarter experiencing a serious mental illness. Among children, the trends are particularly alarming. Between 2009 and 2017, depression rates among teenagers 14 to 17 have increased by more than 60%. Suicide, homelessness, poor academic performance, isolation and job loss are just some of the results of untreated mental health issues. Traditionally, many of these issues have been handled by psychiatry and psychology. However, occupational therapy is emerging as an important tool in combating mental health issues.
- Teaching war veterans strategies for coping with post-traumatic stress disorder
- Helping teens find healthy outlets for anxiety
- Developing community programs to reduce the stigma of mental health issues
5. Rehabilitation and Disability
At the heart of occupational therapy is the treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and disabilities. Currently, about 61 million Americans are affected by a disability, of which the CDC defines six primary disability types: mobility, cognition, hearing, vision, independent living and self-care. In addition to helping with long-term disabilities, occupational therapy can also play an important role in recovering from injuries. In all of these instances, OT and OTAs can help, both on their own and as part of multi-disciplinary care teams that may include speech pathologists, physical therapists, primary care physicians and more.
- Working with a stroke survivor to regain the ability to walk
- Helping the victim of a car accident adapt to life as an amputee
- Assessing whether someone with Parkinson’s disease needs to modify the way they eat and drink to avoid the risk of choking
6. Work and Industry
For many Americans, sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day has become a way of life, and there are a host of associated health issues sitting too much, from increased blood pressure and cancer risk to back pain and poor posture. However, these findings do not imply that standing all day is without adverse effects. For those who spend their entire workday on their feet, standing too much comes with its own set of issues, ranging from muscle fatigue and circulation problems to back pain.
- Helping employers create work environments that are more conducive to their employees’ health and work performance
- Working with a middle-aged employee with back issues to correct posture issues, thereby avoiding further injury
- Recommending the use of an ergonomic keyboard and chair for someone with carpal tunnel
Want to Work in Occupational Therapy?
We want to help you make the right career decision. Give us a call today to learn more about how you can become an occupational therapy assistant in as few as 16 months with St. Kate’s Online OTA program.