Blog Post

What is Occupational Therapy? –  It’s time to stop thinking it’s hard to explain. 

Acknowledgment – This blog post is a personal opinion piece, writing is an occupation that helps me make sense of my thoughts and ideas. I acknowledge these may not be shared others, and respect peoples rights to have, different even conflicting ideas.  This website has an accessible feature, that allows different accessible formats by simply clicking on a button labelled ‘Accessibility Menu’ that appears in green on all pages. It will provide you with a number of options to change the appearance to meet your accessibility needs.  This communication has been written by a dyslexic person. If you have any trouble with the meaning of any of the sentences or words, please do not be afraid to ask for clarification. I’m #MadeByDyslexia – expect creative thinking & creative spelling.

Since a young age, I have been familiar with the term “occupational therapy” due to it being my mother’s career, before mine.  I am uncertain about the exact moment when I fully comprehended its concept, but always try to ensure I take the time to explained to anyone who asks because throughout my professional journey, I have consistently encountered remarks expressing a lack of understanding about occupational therapy and the challenge of explaining its purpose to others.  However if you just take a few minutes to think about it it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. 

During a previous position, I took on the responsibility of leading two teams of occupational therapy staff with the goal of bringing them together as a unified unit. In order to foster cohesion and promote understanding, I organised an exercise for the entire staff. I paired individuals who were not previously acquainted and asked them to discuss how they would articulate the essence of occupational therapy. It is important to note that these staff members worked in a secure mental health setting.

In these conversations, I encountered a range of responses such as assisting individuals in achieving independence and facilitating problem-solving to regain independence. I was somewhat surprised by the difficulty in clearly explaining our profession, and also by the fact that staff in a secure mental health setting viewed independence as a desired outcome.
Thanks to a previous campaign by Alice Hortop @LaughingOT, the Royal College of Occupational Therapists made the decision to remove the term “independence” from their official definition a few years ago.

Independence’, or self-reliance and freedom from external control, influence, support, aid, or similar dependencies, is an elusive concept to fully achieve. Can anyone really claim to be entirely independent? Personally, I readily acknowledge that I rely on others in various aspects of my life, whether it be emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Therefore, the idea that a specific profession can grant complete independence appears to be somewhat unrealistic.

During the same session with the staff from the secure service, I facilitated a further exercise, I asked them to share their weekend activities and reflect on any challenges they faced, as well as how they overcame those challenges.

I recall one individual sharing their experience of painting a room in their home and facing difficulty in reaching certain parts of the wall. They explained that they sought assistance by asking someone to hold a ladder for them.

Currently, as I am writing this blog I’m staying in an Airbnb in Edinburgh with my brother and niece, as we have tickets for the fringe festival. Lyra, my niece, is playfully trying to provoke me, by attempting to open the blinds but being unable to reach the cord. She looked around the room and noticed some books, contemplating if standing on them would help her reach the cord.

Now, back to delving deeper into the concepts of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Therapists. It can be confusing because the therapy and the profession share the same name, causing us to overlook the fact that occupational therapy is a therapy in its own right.

The terms “Occupation” and “Occupational” have multiple meanings. While our initial thought may revolve around a job or career, if we consider the word “occupy,” we are more likely to associate it with a hostile takeover or how we spend our time.

In this context, when we focus on how we use our time, occupations encompass everything we do, from getting out of bed to how we spend our leisure time. They include both things we need and want to do, as well as tasks we may not particularly desire to do, but are required of us.

The term “therapy” refers to the process of providing treatment to individuals with mental or physical ailments, without the use of medications or surgical procedures.
Therapy involves a tailored course of treatment designed to address the unique needs of individuals facing a specific illness. It serves as a means of helping individuals experience an improved sense of well-being, physical development, and overall recovery, particularly following an illness.

Occupational Therapy is a therapeutic approach that focuses on facilitating engagement in occupations that have personal significance.

Individuals who encounter challenges in carrying out their desired or necessary occupations may benefit from Occupational Therapy. These challenges could stem from pain, low mood, lack of motivation, fatigue, illness, or other life-altering events that hinder their ability to participate in occupations.

While some individuals possess the inherent ability to problem-solve and find solutions to overcome these challenges, such as making environmental adjustments or seeking assistance, like my niece naturally did when wanting to open the blinds,  although the main motivation for the occupation was to disturb me,  or more likely she was saying put the laptop down and play with me.  

Others, particularly when unwell, may require support in order to engage in some occupations fully. This support may take the form of modifying the environment, such as installing a ramp, or developing strategies to better manage time and energy. For instance, an Occupational Therapist may provide tasks of varying duration or complexity to enhance concentration and develop skills.

An Occupational Therapist might conducts an assessment to determine an individual’s current abilities and baseline in performing occupations. Based on this assessment, they collaborate with the individual to establish goals aimed at enhancing or adapting their engagement in occupations to align with their personal satisfaction and well-being.
What is of utmost importance is determining the factors that motivate individuals to participate. This may encompass the nature of the occupation, the benefits derive from it, and the personal significance it holds.

Personally, I acknowledge the necessity of increasing my level of physical occupations. However the thought of utilising a traditional gym setting fails to generate any motivation within me.  However, what compels me is the opportunity to engage socially with others while participating in occupations that involve physical exertion, such as swimming in rivers. By finding an occupation that incorporates a social element and facilitates exercise, I am able to ignite genuine motivation. The occupation I am involved in holds a personal significance to me, as it not only enhances my physical abilities but also caters to my social needs.

So this is my call to you all to think about how you might, describe occupational therapy to others, take some time to think of some examples to share, write your thoughts down in a blog post like this.


The World Federation of Occupational Therapy describes  Occupational therapy as a client-centred health profession concerned with promoting health and wellbeing 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)

In occupational therapy, occupations refer to the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families and with communities to occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life. Occupations include things people need too, want to and are expected to do.

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