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The History of Occupational Therapy

The year is 1917, 100 years ago.  The word teenager or canned beer or supermarket had not been coined yet. The Las Vegas population was only 2304. Most families lacked indoor plumbing, including running water for showers and flushing toilets.  Minimum wage was less than 25 cents per hour. The world was fighting World War I.  Also in 1917, the profession of occupational therapy (OT) was born into existence.

According to the Webster’s Dictionary occupation is defined as an “activity in which one engages.” Occupational therapists want to capitalize on motivation to complete these valued activities as part of the recovery process with an emphasis on reducing barriers to independence and participation in these valued, daily tasks. For 100 years, occupational therapy practitioners have helped countless people from various backgrounds get back to performing their basic occupations that had been interrupted by any number of disease process, injury or illness. “Occupational therapy places a unique and immediate focus on patients’ functional and social needs,” which is unique to this therapy (Rogers, Bai, Lavi, & Anderson, 2016).

Founding OT practitioners molded the mainstream medical model (tending to focus a lot of the physical etiologies) with the importance of performing self-driving important daily tasks.  OT actually got its start in the mental health realm and is recognized as the root of occupational therapy. Instead of using restraints, early professionals worked in rehabilitating those with mental illness with work and leisure activities. Then, as World War I progressed, the country found refuge in the fact that OT practitioners were there to help nearly 150,000 wounded soldiers rehab in hospitals with their convergence theory of medical and occupation. From this point, Occupational Therapy went on to expand their scope of practice to almost every population.

Four main focus areas have maintained over the last 100 years and are still central to the profession now:

  1. Occupation is necessary for health.
  2. People centered holism.
  3. Central components are people, occupations and environments.
  4. Performance in occupations.

OT started with just six practitioners as visionaries to the profession 100 years ago and now has grown to over 213,000 across the country. At Capital Region, the occupational therapy team consists of 11 people that work in a variety of settings, including home health, outpatient, inpatient acute and inpatient rehabilitation. This group of OTs sees a variety of patients from newborns to those nearing 100 years old!