An occupational therapist assistant career allows a person who’s interested in helping people with disabilities break into this particular health care sector without spending six or seven years getting the education required for occupational therapists. In order to become an occupational therapist, a person will need to earn a bachelor’s degree, and then go on to earn a master’s degree in occupational therapy. For those who enjoy academic work, that’s certainly an option, but many people are put off by the idea of spending half a dozen years in a classroom setting before starting a health care career. They’d much rather get out and begin helping patients as soon as possible instead of studying for several additional years. For these people, an occupational therapist assistant career is ideal.
An occupational therapist assistant (OTA) works with occupational therapists to improve the lives of people with disabilities, whether the disabilities are physical, mental, developmental, or emotional in nature. By helping them overcome or compensate for their disabilities, OTAs help their patients to lead lives that are as fulfilling, satisfying, and independent as possible. To do this, OTAs work with the occupational therapist to devise a specific treatment plan featuring physical exercises and related activities. Because disabilities can range widely in severity, these activities and exercise also vary widely, depending on the patient’s situation. For example, with someone recovering from carpal tunnel surgery, an OTA’s day may focus on hand exercises to rebuild strength and grip. For other more severe cases, it may involve helping the patient learn to get in and out of a wheelchair on his own. With people who want and need to return to work after being disabled, the therapy will often focus on the specific skills needed on the job, once basic mobility has been re-established. The OTA will demonstrate these exercises, oversee patients as they perform them, and encourage them when they get discouraged. There is also a fair amount of record keeping involved in an occupational therapist assistant career, as the patient’s progress must be carefully monitored and recorded.
The work is very physical, usually requiring the OTA to be on his or her feet for much of the shift. Besides walking and standing, more strenuous physical labor is a regular part of the job, such as repeatedly bending over, kneeling, lifting patients in and out of beds and wheelchairs, etc. It’s imperative to take proper safety precautions on the job. Besides being in good physical shape, the OTA must be extremely patient, as the disabled can take a very long time to make even small progress. As well as patience, a strong sense of empathy is also necessary, as is the ability to get along with difficult people. It is not always easy dealing with the disabled, as some of them can be unhappy, bitter, and depressed about their situation.
As noted earlier, the educational requirements for OTAs are much lower than for occupational therapists. A college degree is required, but it’s an associate’s degree, which normally takes two years to complete. Subjects studied will include physiology, anatomy, and basic medical concepts during the first year, while second-year courses will focus specifically on occupational therapy and will include several months of working with patients in a clinical setting under the supervision of an occupational therapist. Upon graduation, the prospective OTA will need to take the Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant exam, which is a demanding test of knowledge and skills administered by the National Board for Certifying Occupational Therapy.
Salaries for an occupational therapist assistant career range from approximately $33,000 to over $65,000 a year. Most OTAs earn between $40,000 and $60,000 annually. According to official government projections, salaries should remain high for the foreseeable future, as the demand for OTAs is expected to be well above average in the coming years.