A Historical Perspective of Occupational Therapy
Catie Madison

A historical perspective of Occupational Therapy

A Historical Perspective of Occupational Therapy
Catie Madison

A historical perspective of Occupational Therapy

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We are celebrating the OT (Occupational Therapy) profession.  Many have advocated the fantastic work of occupational therapists in our healthcare system.

Despite how widespread OT is and the diverse settings we work in, I still get asked regularly, “what is OT?” Many assume our role as occupational therapists includes:

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!

OTs 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. OTs also have a strong history of supporting mental health and well-being. 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. Many acknowledged the benefit of having meaningful roles and routines. 


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

WWI veterans were provided occupational therapy services from nurses trained as “reconstruction aides”  as they healed 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 therapy treatment. We continue to be a profession that is passionate about empowering those at the margins of our society.  OTs find new ways to think about healing and life. We have always been and will continue to be justice-driven.  OT is a holistic practice that centers around the patient’s or client’s desires and personal identity. 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 a thing or two 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!


About the Author

Catie is an occupational therapist who specializes in autism, mental health, feeding therapy, and nature-based therapy. She is also trained in identifying and treating screen overuse and addictive tendencies toward technology in children. She is passionate about integrating your family’s expertise and experiences into my therapy. She is a coach that helps find simple and meaningful solutions to the things that get in the way of living your best life. She has worked for 3 years for one of the leading autism and mental health clinics in MN. She brings a low-tech, mindful, and hands on approach to her therapy. She uses the latest research and evidence to guide her treatment.

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