What is OT? Your Response in the Elevator

What is OT? Your Response in the Elevator


“The ultimate statement of pride and confidence in the profession will be the full adoption of the term occupation in the language of the profession, with each occupational therapist taking personal responsibility for explaining to the world why we are called occupational therapists.”

David L. Nelson,  1996 Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture 

So, it turns out that no matter how hard Leanne and I tried to develop both a short and memorable definition of occupational therapy that can be shared in a short encounter in an elevator – WE FAILED. Miserably!!! 

After hours of deliberating, creating and tossing our hands in the air, we looked at what we have found both inspirational and informative in the materials we already had around us. Our agreed upon favorite was something that a parent shared with Leanne after working with her child.  So here is one suggested definition for those short encounters. It might even be something to carry in your pocket and pass out the next time you are approached with only seconds to answer. 

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Or if responding by email, share this! 


Thank you to Katie Mary – for this concise and inspirational definition that also “packs a punch” at creating meaning. It definitely gets across the idea that we help others overcome barriers to individually identified meaningful occupations.  In the very least, it leaves others with a quick, general idea of what we do, and a chance at remembering and sharing with others!  

The best part of this “table” community is our ability to share and dialogue in the comments! We are sure some of you are familiar with Katie Mary’s definition, but we’d love to hear what you would say. What is your favorite definition or description when given only seconds to describe OT? Please share in the comments. There certainly is not one correct answer here. 

Whatever your response, we do challenge you to incorporate the use of occupation in your definition, as this is what unites us across all practice areas and models. It is so vital to our profession that we are comfortable with and embrace this term in our definition recipe and in our practice. As Nelson (1996) reminds us in his lecture, “ What makes us unique is not that we document functional outcomes but that we use occupation as a method to achieve positive outcomes.” (p.428).  

While contemplating our own “elevator” definitions, Leanne and I decided that in MOST cases when someone asks us what occupational therapy is, we DO often have longer than a few seconds to answer.  In MOST instances it is our own family member, patient, friend, co-worker, client or parent asking.  Also, in MOST cases, the person asking has entrusted us to give them some useful information and also exposed a little of their own vulnerability – as MOST are already embarrassed to admit they have little to no idea what we do.  This is especially true when they are your own parent (really!!), a friend or coworker you have had for years, or the parent of a child who already receives OT services. 

So fill up your cup, grab that snack and (OT’s and non- OT’s alike) leave your comments here and we will likely re-visit this “short answer recipe” idea in the future. After that – meet us in the next post for Leanne’s embarrassing, true-to-life story, and our suggested recipe for how to respond when you do have more than a few seconds to describe occupational therapy.  

Warm Regards,

Jennica & Leanne

Sharing our stories…



Mary, K. (2020, Jan 18). What is OT? Occupational Therapy Facebook. https://m.facebook.com/OccupationalTherapyAssociation/photos/a.403309005291/10157141497835292/?type=3&source=48

Mary, K. (2020, Jun 18). OT Quote – Katie Mary 3. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUEIPOeHCCg

Nelson, D.L. (1996). 1996 Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lecture Why the Profession of Occupational Therapy Will Flourish in the 21st Century. In Padilla, R., & Griffiths, Y. (Eds.). A Professional Legacy, The Eleanor Clarke Slagle Lectures in Occupational Therapy 1955-2016 Centennial Edition (pp.415-431). Bethesda: American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. 


A special thank you to the parent, who on their own journey with occupational therapy, shared this resource that resonated, inspired and rescued this post. 

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