Join us as we walk through a history of how Occupational Therapy came to be.
Catie Madison

A historical perspective of Occupational Therapy

During the month of April, we celebrate the OT profession and all of the fantastic work that has been done to advocate for the importance of occupational therapy in our healthcare system. Despite how widespread OT is and the many diverse settings we work in, I still get asked regularly, “what is OT?” Some assumptions of our role as occupational therapists include 1.) Helping people find a job (occupation), 2.) A different name for physical therapy, or 3.) a talk therapist who solves your mental health problems. In some ways, OT relates to all these! We help people engage in their daily occupations (including their career or job, and so much more!). We work closely with physical therapy and sometimes share treatment spaces and styles. We also have a strong history of supporting mental health and wellbeing. To better understand what OT is, let’s look at a historical timeline of the profession.


The 1700s: Benefit of OT Activities Acknowledged

Individuals with mental illness are considered dangerous and are often imprisoned with no support. Seeing the inhuman living conditions of these individuals, human rights advocates during this time began to offer more support for mental health. They began creating space for people to engage in hands-on activities such as crafts and simple daily living skills. The benefit of having meaningful roles and routines was starting to be acknowledged. 


The late 1800s: Occupational Therapy is Born

William Rush Dunton, a psychiatrist, often referred to as “the father of occupational therapy,” advocates for the importance of engagement in daily routines and occupations in treating his patients with mental illness. He explains that “… occupation is as necessary as food and drink and all patients should have occupations which they enjoy. That sick minds, sick bodies, [and] sick souls may be healed through occupation.”


1915: The Occupational Therapy Training Program

Eleanor Clark Slagle organizes the first educational program for occupational therapists. 


1918: End of War Propels Occupational Therapy Forward

World War I ended, and nurses were trained as “reconstruction aides” to provide occupational therapy services to veterans as they heal physically and mentally. This work empowered veterans to overcome barriers they faced in their daily routines and learn new skills. As a result, veterans found new meaningful roles and occupations in a society that changed so much during the war. 


Future: Occupational Therapy Continues to Empower

The future of OT is bright! Over the past 100 years, we have seen remarkable advances in occupational science research and occupational therapy treatment. We continue to be a profession that is passionate about empowering those at the margins of our society and finding new ways to think about healing and life. We have always been and will continue to be a justice-driven and holistic practice that centers around the desires and personal identity of the patient or client. If you are interested in exploring what OT can offer you or your family, connect with one of our amazing OT Vitalguides! 


Connect with an Occupational Therapist

We hope you have learned something about Occupational Therapy during this month of April! Connect with any of our wonderful OT VitalGuides on Vitalxchange to get support for your child to optimize their independence with their daily occupations!


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