An occupational therapist career is a good choice for those who want to improve the lives of people with serious disabilities. An occupational therapist works with people who suffer from disabilities —physical, developmental, mental, and emotional — in order to help them lead lives that are as self-reliant, happy, and productive as possible under the circumstances. People who work in these medical occupations truly change lives.
People in these circumstances have lost the abilities that enable them to function on their own, and it is the task of the occupational therapist to help them recover as much of their abilities as possible, and when that’s not possible, to devise ways of coping with or compensating for the disability. A person seeking an occupational therapist career will need to possess deep empathy, a high level of ingenuity, and a greater-than-ordinary ability to be patient.
The work revolves around helping patients learn to perform the entire range of physical tasks encountered in daily life. Some of these are very basic, such as helping a patients learn to feed, dress, or bathe themselves. Others will be more complex, such as operating a computer or using an automobile. Each patient’s situation will be different, of course, and therefore the functions that the patients need help with may vary widely. Many times, the work will involve leading patients through exercises to improve their balance, muscle strength, or coordination. For other patients, it may be necessary to show them how to use a wheelchair, or an artificial limb, and how to adjust to life while relying on these aids. In some cases, the therapist may have to personally develop and build devices that patients can use to improve their lives, such as a special attachment to a desk. Some occupational therapists specialize in helping people with disabilities cope at work, which will usually involve going to the place of employment, consulting with both the patient and employer, and making recommendations the company can implement that will allow the person to remain a valued and productive employee.
Many occupational therapists choose to specialize in one area, such as a particular age group, or patients with a particular disability, such as cerebral palsy, the developmentally disabled, people with spinal cord injuries, etc. Many choose to work with small children exclusively, while others focus on the elderly. While specialization is not necessarily required, choosing to focus on a particular patient population enables a therapist to become expert at helping those particular patients, and specialization is becoming increasingly common among occupational therapists.
Occupational therapy work is very physically demanding in most cases. It often requires the therapist to be walking or standing for the entire shift, and there is often a lot of lifting, transporting, and adjusting of patients. Taking necessary safety precautions is always necessary, especially for the feet and back. In many cases, there can be a lot of travel involved. The majority of occupational therapists work in hospitals and clinics, but some will need to travel to the homes and workplaces of patients.
In order to embark on an occupational therapist career, a person will need at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy from an accredited program. A doctoral degree is an option, and will usually lead to more job offers and higher pay, but it not usually a necessity. As part of earning a graduate degree, the candidate will need to spend six months performing the work of an occupational therapist in a clinical setting, supervised by professionals. Once in possession of the degree, the candidate must take and pass the Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR) exam, which is given by the National Board for Certifying Occupational Therapy.
Salaries for occupational therapists are much higher than average. The typical occupational therapist earns around $70,000 a year, and most earn between $60,000 and $80,000 annually. Employment prospects are excellent, as the federal government projects that job openings in this field are expected to grow much faster than average for the foreseeable future. As with all occupations, strong demand leads to higher wages, so the outlook for those choosing an occupational therapist career is excellent.