“What is Occupational Therapy?”

“What is Occupational Therapy?”


Remember when we used to laugh, rather painfully, about the persons who would smile politely and say “oh isn’t that nice” when we told them we were occupational therapists? For we knew they had no idea what we did. To make matters worse we were not at all sure we could tell them.

– Elizabeth June Yerxa, OTR Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture 1966

Oh…the dreaded question…even for the 30 plus year practitioner in 2021 this can be the moment your smartwatch vibrates on your wrist telling you to practice breathing. This loaded question is too complex to give a single “7 second” explanation. Some of us think back to the “elevator speech” we practiced in OT school, some of us begin reciting the most current American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) definition, and others stumble over their own definitions based on a triumphant client situation, or series of words meaningful to us that we feel explains best what we do in our clinics, schools, or practice settings.

The truth is, this definition is complicated and continually evolving and it is often elusive and influenced by the culture and time (Schell, B. A. B. & Gillen G., 2019, p. xliii -xliv). So how do we influence, promote the profession and leave an indelible mark in the minds of those who ask what we do?

We have come to believe the answer is really more simple than you think. Together we will explain how to answer this question without holding your breath or your heart skipping a beat. We are going to help you create your first recipe card for answering this question: What is occupational therapy? It will have a style all your own, but grounded in our professional roots. Delicious and full of flavor. So lets start here:

In full transparency we are asking you to complete an activity that is entirely unexciting, perhaps even painful. However, we promise it will be worth your effort!

Activity: Choosing your favorite definition
In true OT fashion we feel this is best presented in the form of an activity. Choose your favorite “root” definition.
OT Practitioners: Your assignment is to read through the following definitions and pick your favorite. Which one most speaks to you and the way in which you practice?
Non-Practitioners: Your assignment is to read through these and choose the one that makes the most sense to you. Which one gives you the best idea of exactly what it is that OT’s do?

Hang in there all … technical writing is important and can leave heads spinning. However, in order to demistify for the general public what occupational therapy truly is, we have to pay homage to the documents that light the way and guard our profession.

Ready, Set, Go…

American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)

Here is the current definition offered on the AOTA website: https://www.aota.org/Conference-Events/OTMonth/what-is-OT.aspx

“Occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations). Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent—or live better with—injury, illness, or disability. 

Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain skills, and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes. Occupational therapy services typically include:

  • an individualized evaluation, during which the client/family and occupational therapist determine the person’s goals,
  • customized intervention to improve the person’s ability to perform daily activities and reach the goals, and
  • an outcomes evaluation to ensure that the goals are being met and/or make changes to the intervention plan. 

Occupational therapy practitioners have a holistic perspective, in which the focus is on adapting the environment and/or task to fit the person, and the person is an integral part of the therapy team. It is an evidence-based practice deeply rooted in science.”

Keep Going... You Got This!

World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT)

The current definition on the World Federation of Occupational Therapists Website: https://wfot.org/about/about-occupational-therapy

“Occupational therapy is a client-centered health profession concerned with promoting health and well being through occupation. The primary goal of occupational therapy is to enable people to participate in the activities of everyday life. Occupational therapists achieve this outcome by working with people and communities to enhance their ability to engage in the occupations they want to, need to, or are expected to do, or by modifying the occupation or the environment to better support their occupational engagement. (WFOT 2012)

hang in there………

Only One More…


And of course looking to Wikipedia….which may be referred to when a person is looking for a basic definition on the internet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) is the use of assessment and intervention to develop, recover, or maintain the meaningful activities, or occupations, of individuals, groups, or communities. 

Whew….Did you get through it?

Which definition did you choose?

If you made it through all of those without napping or stopping to grab a snack or change the load of laundry…you get a GOLD STAR!!! Reciting these definitions to describe occupational therapy will likely bore the average person into some stage of coma. For those of you non-OT’s we are guessing all of that language may have left you even more baffled as to what it is that we do!

It goes without saying that occupational therapists should be familiar with these definitions, but it’s not how we best explain to others what occupational therapy is when we are given the opportunity. The truth is, these technical definitions lack personal meaning to most people. In defining occupational therapy, we plan to honor our professional roots and legacy and grow this recipe using language that will convey personal meaning and shared importance with the people we meet.

We believe trees do not become beautiful without strong roots, and recipes become delicious without a formulary of basic ingredients- like the definitions here. Meet us in the next post. Your recipe for defining occupational therapy is about to get both meaningful and delicious. Grab a snack and fill up your cup if you haven’t already. You deserve it! Then come back and meet us in the next post!

Warm Regards, 

Jennica & Leanne 

 Sharing our stories…





Schell, B. A. B., & Gillen, G. (2019).  Willard and Spackman’s occupational therapy (13th Edition). Baltimore: Wolters Kluwer.

Yerxa, E. J. (1966).  1966 Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture Authentic Occupational Therapy In Padilla, R., & Griffiths, Y. (2017).  A Professional Legacy, The Elenor Clarke Slagle Lectures in Occupational Therapy 1955-2016 (Centennial ed, pp. 105-115). Bethesda: American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. 

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