2020 Essay Contest - Honorable Mention: Occupational Therapy is a Misunderstood / Not Well-Known Profession by Nicole Sicurella

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Occupational Therapy is a Misunderstood / Not Well-Known Profession by Nicole Sicurella

Throughout my undergraduate career, I had always loved the sciences. As an Exercise Science major, I was very much interested in anatomy and physiology, but was unsure of the direction this degree would take me. I had considered careers in cardiac rehabilitation, athletic training, and even physical therapy. While I loved my curriculum, I had become blind to the bigger picture, and how I would be applying this knowledge once I graduated. When that time finally came, I quickly applied for jobs as a personal trainer, as a way to make money on the side of whichever future career I may still desire to enter. However, I did not find this position to be as rewarding, or fun, as I had originally hoped, and though still without direction, I left to continue my job search elsewhere.

At this time, I had become disheartened that I may never find a career path that would utilize my education while suiting my interests, until, that is, I came upon a job at a special services school. Though an entry level position, as a one-to-one aide, I was helping children of all ages become more independent in their daily lives, and I absolutely loved it. While at face-value, this job was a perfect fit for me, it quickly became apparent to me that I needed to continue this new-found passion a bit further, if I were going to get a full use of my degree I had worked so hard to earn.

One day, as I was escorting a student to a physical therapy session, I caught a glimpse of a neighboring therapist. I thought to myself how fun and creative the session looked and wondered what type of therapy it was. This was my first experience with occupational therapy, and long story short, it brought me to where I am today: a full time Occupational Therapy student at Stockton University. Throughout my entire undergraduate career, I attended career fairs, guest speakers, and even took career aptitude tests, and not once had I remembered hearing anything about occupational therapy. Perhaps I had, but the memory had never stuck with me. 

This is where the most unresolved issue in my profession lies: it is not widely known or well understood. I, myself, fell victim to the obscurity of occupational therapy during my undergraduate career, which I believe was a result of my lack of awareness of the profession. While there may be any number of reasons why occupational therapy is so misunderstood, I believe the issue is a result of the name. A common misconception derived from the word “occupation” is that occupational therapists help people find jobs. While this may be true to some extent, it is not our sole purpose. As a first year occupational therapy student, I have been taught to work on my “elevator speech” for when others ask the inevitable question of “What is occupational therapy?”, and I believe that answer can be as unique as the individual articulating it. According to the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework: Domain and Process 3rd Edition, the purpose of occupational therapy is to “achieve health, well-being, and participation in life through engagement in occupation” (2014). I keep my definition even more simple, by responding “An occupational therapist works with individuals in need to become more independent in activities of their daily lives”. Because the scope of practice of occupational therapy includes so much, lines of distinction between occupational therapy and other professions become blurred. 

In order to resolve this, I propose a change in nomenclature from “Occupational Therapy” to “Independence Therapy” may be beneficial. While this name still leaves some room for interpretation, I believe it is a step in the right direction in clarifying what it is, exactly, that occupational therapists do. I realize this may not be the most practical method of resolution, but I stand by the fact it is an argument worth making, as a name is a crucial part of any profession. A name is a first impression, in that it is the first clue one receives in painting a picture of a profession before learning what it actually entails. If this message is unclear, it is easily misunderstood or forgotten.

Another, perhaps more viable, resolution for getting occupational therapy the recognition it deserves is to highlight it in the media. I believe it would be incredibly beneficial for this profession to be more frequently portrayed on platforms such as motion pictures or documentaries, television programs, or social media, because it would be an efficient mode advocating the profession to the largest number of people as possible. A way to go about this would be to create a documentary which regards two or three prominent forces in the media who have experienced the healing properties of occupational therapy. This would benefit both the profession of occupational therapy and individuals whose lives could be improved from occupational therapy. The use of personal narratives of well-known celebrities would appeal to a variety of people, and therefore widen the audience of potential viewers, which would serve as a way to shine light on the profession in a positive and accurate manner. Appealing to a diverse audience would also help the population as a whole, because it may resonate with certain individuals who are currently struggling to participate in valued occupations of their daily lives, but have not previously been familiar with the assistance occupational therapy can provide. 

In order to go about this proposed documentary, stars who have previously been vocal about personal struggles could be of aid. One celebrity in particular who could be a potential advocate for occupational therapy in this regard would be Michal J. Fox. Michael J. Fox has become a philanthropist since his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, and has since become the founder of a research foundation for the disease. The Parkinson’s population is one in which occupational therapists have a strong presence, therefore chances of him having personal experience with services are high. As evidenced by his research foundation and advocacy for his own condition, the likelihood of his participation in such a documentary seems favorable, as well. An additional population with which occupational therapists can work is mental illness. Stars such as Michael Phelps, Demi Lovato, and Robert Downey, Jr. have been vocal in recent years about their own personal experiences with mental illness and addiction and the impact these obstacles have had on their daily lives. While it is not confirmed they had undergone occupational therapy, it would be helpful to reach out to these individuals, and others like them who use their platform for advocacy for mental health, to ask. With the help of a few big names, a documentary would be a useful tool in aiding occupational therapists to advocate for the profession. 

In conclusion, the biggest issue surrounding the profession of occupational therapy is advocacy, and the fact it is not as widely known or understood as other professions. In order to resolve this issue, the profession may benefit from a change in nomenclature to “Independence Therapy” and/or a more prominent presence in the media by way of a documentary.

Resources

  • American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). (2014). Occupational therapy practice framework: domain and process (3rd ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 68 (Suppl. 1), S1– S48. http://dx.doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2014.682006