Occupational therapy assistants (also called OTAs) help people with mental, physical, developmental, or emotional limitations using a variety of activities to improve basic motor functions and reasoning abilities. They work under the direct supervision of an occupational therapist, and their duties include helping to plan, implement, and evaluate rehabilitation programs designed to regain patients’ self-sufficiency and to restore their physical and mental functions. There are 21,000 occupational therapy assistants employed in the United States. Occupational therapy aides help OTAs and occupational therapists by doing such things as clerical work, preparing therapy equipment for a client’s use, and keeping track of supplies. Approximately 5,400 occupational therapy aides are employed in the United States.
Occupational Therapy Assistant and Aide Careers History
Since about the 14th century, physicians have recognized the therapeutic value of providing activities and occupations for their patients. Observations that mental patients tended to recover more quickly from their illnesses if provided with tasks and duties led physicians to involve their patients in such activities as agriculture, weaving, working with animals, and sewing. Over time, this practice became quite common, and the conditions of many patients were improved.
Occupational therapy as we know it today had its beginning after World War I. The need to help disabled veterans of that war, and years later the veterans of World War II, stimulated the growth of this field. Even though its inception was in the psychiatric field, occupational therapy has developed an equally important role in other medical fields, including rehabilitation of physically disabled patients.
As more health care providers began to incorporate occupational therapy into their treatment philosophy, demand arose for workers who could assist occupational therapists with rehabilitation and office support services. Thus, the careers of occupational therapy assistant and occupational therapy aide were born. These health care professionals, who work under the direct supervision of occupational therapists, play an integral role in the care of people with mental, physical, developmental, or emotional limitations.
Occupational Therapy Assistant and Aide Job Description
Occupational therapy is used to help provide rehabilitation services to persons with mental, physical, emotional, or developmental disabilities. The goal of occupational therapy is to improve a patient’s quality of life by compensating for limitations caused by age, illness, or injury. It differs from physical therapy because it focuses not only on physical rehabilitation, but also on psychological well-being. Occupational therapy emphasizes improvement of the activities of daily living—including such functions as personal hygiene, dressing, eating, and cooking.
Occupational therapy assistants, under the supervision of the therapist, implement patient care plans and activities. They help patients improve mobility and productivity using a variety of activities and exercises. They may use adaptive techniques and equipment to help patients perform tasks many take for granted. A reacher, a long-handled device that pinches and grabs small items, may be used to pick up keys from the floor or a book from the shelf. Therapy assistants may have patients mix ingredients for a cake or flip a grilled cheese sandwich using a special spatula. Activities such as dancing, playing cards, or throwing a ball are fun, yet they help improve mobility and give the patients a sense of self-esteem. Therapists evaluate an activity, minimize the number of steps, and streamline movement so the patient will be less fatigued. Assistants may also help therapists evaluate a patient’s progress, change care plans as needed, make therapy appointments, and complete paperwork.
Occupational therapy aides are responsible for materials and equipment used during therapy. They assemble and clean equipment and make certain the therapists and assistants have what they need for a patient’s therapy session. A therapy aide’s duties are more clerical in nature. They answer telephones, schedule appointments, order supplies and equipment, and complete insurance forms and other paperwork.
Occupational Therapy Assistant and Aide Career Requirements
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most occupational therapy aides receive on-the-job training, while occupational therapy assistants require further education after high school. For either position, however, a high school diploma is a must. Prepare for these careers by taking classes in biology, health, and social sciences. Anyone interested in doing this work must also be able to communicate clearly, follow directions, and work as part of a team. English or communication classes can help you improve on these skills.
In addition, admissions officers at postsecondary programs are favorably impressed if you have experience in the health care field. If you cannot find a paid job, consider volunteering at a local hospital or nursing home during your high school years.
While occupational therapy aides receive on-the-job training, occupational therapy assistants must have either an associate’s degree or certificate from an accredited OTA program. Programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), which is part of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). In 2005 there were 134 programs fully accredited by the ACOTE; in addition, a number of programs were on “inactive status,” meaning that they were not currently accepting new students but may reactivate (begin accepting students again) in the future. A full listing of programs, as well as their contact information, is available on the AOTA Web site, under “Accreditation and Educational Programs,” http://www.aota.org.
Generally, programs take two years to complete. Studies include courses such as human anatomy, psychology of adjustment, biology, human kinesiology, therapeutic media, and techniques. Most schools also require their students to take a number of general classes as well to round out their education. These may be courses such as English, business math, and management. In addition to class work, you will be required to complete a period of supervised fieldwork, which will give you hands-on experience with occupational therapy.
Certification or Licensing
Occupational therapy aides do not require certification or licensing. Occupational therapy assistants must pass the certifying test of the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. After passing this test, assistants receive the designation certified occupational therapy assistant. Licensure requirements for assistants vary by state, so you will need to check with the licensing board of the state in which you want to work for specific information.
Occupational therapy assistants and aides must be able to take directions. OTAs should have a pleasant disposition, strong people skills, and a desire to help those in need. Assistants must also be patient and responsible. Aides, too, should be responsible. They also need to be detail oriented in order to keep track of paperwork and equipment. It is important for assistants and aides to work well as a team.
Exploring Occupational Therapy Assistant and Aide Careers
A visit to your local hospital’s occupational therapy department is the best way to learn about this field. Speak with occupational therapists, assistants, and aides to gain an understanding of the work they do. Also, the AOTA and other related organizations might be able to provide career information. School guidance and job centers, and the library, are good information sources.
There are approximately 21,000 occupational therapy assistants and 5,400 occupational therapy aides employed in the United States. Approximately 30 percent of all assistants and aides work in a hospital setting, 23 percent are employed by offices of physicians and occupational therapists, and 18 percent work in nursing facilities. Others work in community care facilities for the elderly, home health care services, outpatient rehabilitation centers, and state government agencies.
The career services department of your local community college or technical school can provide a listing of jobs available in the occupational therapy field. Job openings are usually posted in hospital human resource departments. Professional groups are also a good source of information; for example, AOTA’s Web site has an employment page for members.
After some experience, occupational therapy assistants can be promoted to lead assistant. Lead assistants are responsible for making work schedules of other assistants and for the training of occupational therapy students. Since occupational therapy assistants work under the supervision of an occupational therapist, there is little room for advancement. Aides may return to school and train to become occupational therapy assistants. Some assistants and aides return to school to become occupational therapists. Some shift to other health care careers.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median yearly income of occupational therapy assistants was $39,750 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $24,670 to $55,030 or more annually. Naturally, experience, location, and type of employer all factor into the salaries paid.
The importance of education, though cannot be overlooked, as assistants tend to earn more than aides. Median annual earnings of occupational therapist aides were $24,310 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Salaries ranged from less than $16,460 to $44,190 or more annually.
Benefits for full-time workers depend on the employer. They generally include health and life insurance, paid sick and vacation time, holiday pay, and a retirement plan.
Most occupational therapy assistants and aides work during the day, although depending on the place of employment, some evening or weekend work may be required. Most therapy is done in a hospital or clinic setting that is clean, well lighted, and generally comfortable.
Occupational therapy assistants often use everyday items, settings, and activities to help rehabilitate their patients. Such props include kitchen settings, card games, dancing, or exercises. Therapy assistants should be in good physical shape, since heavy lifting—of patients as well as equipment—is a daily part of the job. Therapy assistants should also have stamina, since they are on their feet for much of the day.
Occupational Therapy Assistant and Aide Careers Outlook
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment for occupational therapy assistants and aides will grow much faster than the average through 2014. However, only a small number of new jobs will actually be available due to the size of these occupations. Occupational growth will stem from an increased number of people with disabilities and elderly people. Although more people are living well into their 70s, 80s, and in some cases, 90s, they often need the kinds of services occupational therapy provides. Medical technology has greatly improved, saving many lives that in the past would be lost through accidents, stroke, or other illnesses. Such people need rehabilitation therapy as they recuperate. Hospitals and employers are hiring more therapy assistants to help with the workload and to reduce costs.
For More Information:
- American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
- National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy