This week we celebrate World Occupational Therapy Day on the 27th October. This is the second time this day has been celebrated and is part of the wider celebration around the globe for OT Month.
I have been reflecting recently on why I became an occupational therapist and why I remain so.
It all started for me at the age of 15. I was asked by my friend and her mum to help out a camp for children with physical and cognitive impairments with Noah’s Ark Toy Library in Melbourne. My friend’s mum was employed there as an occupational therapist. At the camp, my eyes were suddenly opened and I saw for the first time what it might be like to work with children with a disability and their families. I wondered if this might be my “calling”.
Another strong influence in my career selection was my mother. My mother was a Registered Nurse and while I grew up she worked in the area of aged care. My mother nursed people lovingly in long term aged care facilities and was instrumental in setting up the Scott Street Adult Day Care Facility in Dandenong, Vic. I spent much time at that facility working with the older adults doing their daily exercises, arts and crafts, playing scrabble, participating in conversations and looking beneath the mask of age to the beauty of their souls and wisdom. The thing that I remember most about that time was there was so much laughter and fun, and many of the people who attended said they would have died without it. They actually meant it.
My occupational therapy education was at Lincoln Institute in Melbourne and enjoyed the social nature of our education process more than the studying part. Like most students, fieldwork was a particular highlight in my learning, even though some of the hardest learning came through understanding and accepting my own mistakes. I started in 1985 and finished in 1989, I had a year off in the middle as I went to Japan to teach English and ended up working at Tokyo Disneyland! While living and working in Japan in the 1980s I experienced my own form of disability and bias. Disability: I had to learn Japanese in order to communicate and Bias: As a white Western female many assumed I was there as a “Call Girl” and treated me as such.
My first job as an OT was in acute mental health. I worked with an amazing team of people from a range of disciplines who helped me learn, by showing me how they worked and letting me try things out. I remember my OT manager had a sign in her office that said “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with a list of potential solutions”. I took that sign very seriously and only once did I sit down in her office and say “I have no idea what to do in the acute program today”. In this role I ran groups that included relaxation, dance and movement, cooking, arts and crafts, horticulture and woodwork. The purpose of the acute program was to create a structure for the patients’ lives on the ward. After working on the acute ward I needed to move to an area that focused on more community living skills, so I applied for a job in a new community residential facility which would act as a transition point from hospital to community living. Ironically we opened this brand new facility at the same time that the whole world was moving rapidly into “de-institutionalisation”, so we were given a large number of men and women with 20 years or more history of severe mental illness coupled with the effects of institutionalisation. Our visions of possibility for the population we had been serving became overshadowed by the overwhelming needs of the population we inherited as they emptied the institutions to the community. Over time we managed several of our houses with long term residents and the other houses returned to being a step-down facility for people being discharged from acute wards in the hospital to the community. My focus as an OT was on living skills such as budgeting, bill-paying, shopping, using public transport, social skills and home management. I started to specialize in helping people to prepare for return to work and worked closely with people at the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service (which became known as CRS Australia) for assistance.
After a while I became more interested in vocational rehabilitation and successfully applied for a job to work at CRSAustralia. I ended up working there for nine years and became proficient in many areas of OT work such as undertaking Functional Capacity Evaluations, Work Site Assessments, creating Work Conditioning Programs, overseeing workplace modifications and so on. I also had a small stint working on a “Policy Development” project while at CRS and got to have a taste of “black suits and briefcases” and early morning flights from Melbourne to Sydney or Canberra. What I remember most about working in Vocational Rehabilitation at CRS Australia was having the ability to work closely with my clients and getting to know them well as we carved out a program designed to help them manage their limitations and return to work. It was while I worked at CRS Australia that I worked on my first Virtual Team, which would later serve me well.
In June 2002 I moved to work at a private surgical and fast-stream rehabilitation hospital. Here I re-learned many of what most OTs consider “bread and butter” OT skills. Cognitive assessments, shower and dressing assessments, ADL tasks such as meal preparation, shopping, banking and community mobility assessments and interventions. What I enjoyed most about this job was having the opportunity to work from an occupational health and well-being angle with people who were in the midst of a medical event. People told me the stories of their lives in the steam of the shower or by tracing their finger along the scars on their bodies. I felt so privileged to have this role, I think that the importance of this role is often overlooked.
While I was working at the hospital I was also working on my Masters degree at the University of Queensland. I was very excited to be actively learning again and was so impressed by the staff at UQ that I decided that I wanted to become an academic! Deakin University had just commenced a new occupational therapy program at their Waterfront Campus in Geelong under the direction of Ann Wilcock, and I really wanted to work with her. As I was not especially knowledgeable about this thing called “Occupational Science” I decided to use one of my assignments in my Masters degree to examine this topic. I used this as my launching place to get to know Ann Wilcock better and make sure she knew that I was serious about wanting to work with her. In February 2003 I started work at Deakin and started by teaching second years in a Lifespan Development course. I had approximately 4 weeks to develop curriculum from scratch, with no assistance and no idea of where to start. OTs are good at problem solving and with some help from my friends, my husband, and even my own students I survived the baptism of fire of my first year as an OT educator. Each year I worked at Deakin I taught new subjects while keeping some of my previous subjects or passing them on to new staff as they joined. I discovered that I have a talent for curriculum development and went on to develop eight new courses at Deakin. While at Deakin I undertook post graduate education in Higher Education and found this to be one of the single most helpful education experiences I have had. The program was designed to have an overarching structure that included topics that the Education Faculty felt were fundamental to being able to teach in Higher Education but it was also designed to be flexible to the learning needs of each individual student.
In July 2006 my life took a turn “North” when I was at the WFOT congress in Sydney. It was at the congress that I met the staff from the University of Alberta, who were there showcasing their program and recruiting new faculty. I decided then and there that I was going to apply and when I spoke with my husband on the phone that evening he know by the tone of my voice that I was serious. He was just as excited about potentially living and working in another country, so together we worked on developing my CV and applying for the job. Our children were excited and anxious about moving. the hardest part was leaving family and friends. Occupational Therapy was moving us to Canada!
In October 2007 we moved from Australia to Canada and I started work at the University of Alberta. That was also when I started blogging, one for family and one for work. On arrival I found that I was going to be involved in developing new curriculum as the program was about to roll out its first year of the new MScOT program and Susan Burwash and I were tasked with developing the “Curriculum Philosophy” for the upcoming CAOT accreditation. I was in my element! Tight deadlines, opportunity for creativity and a great team of clinical track teaching staff to work with.
Something I noticed however, was my lack of connection to the community I lived in. All my OT life I had lived where I had worked and I had practiced OT in settings within the one community. That meant had I had developed a significant community around me in Geelong, which I now lacked in Edmonton. To overcome this I started to connect more with OTs in the global community and started volunteering as a computer skills teacher at a local agency for people with acquired brain injuries (it’s called Brain care Centre now) and in 2010 my whole family started volunteering as puppy raisers with an assistance dog training society called Dogs with Wings.
Connecting with local agencies was critical in the “doing, being becoming and belonging” process of joining a new community. I started doing research projects with Brain Care Centre about people with ABI being able to use online technology safely to enhance social connections, which led to student involvement and further projects. One of the students involved even got her first OT job from working with BCC as a student volunteer in one of our projects! For me, this also led to conference presentations, networking and is now integral to my publishing endeavours (and even links to my current PhD research).
In 2009 a series of events brought a group of like-minded individuals together and became known as OT4OT (online technology for occupational therapy). OT4OT is a small international group of occupational therapy volunteers who are passionate about using online technology to advance entry level education, ongoing professional development, research, and practice. As volunteers we coordinate and run activities for the overall benefit of our profession. The biggest event we run is a OT 24 hour virtual exchange (OT24VX) to celebrate World OT Day. Our vision is:
“To share knowledge about online technologies to enable occupational therapy practitioners and assistants, educators and students to participate in vibrant and effective online communities that support the growth and development of occupational therapy practice, education & research, locally & globally.”
Along the path of my OT career I have been open to opportunities that have presented themselves to me… I didn’t plan to become an OT, nor did I plan to become an OT educator let alone a VirtualOT living in Canada… it all evolved as I followed paths that made sense at the time. So now my life is at another fork in the road, I don’t have an ongoing contract at the University of Alberta and the future is presently shrouded in a fog, but I am confident that a new path will reveal itself soon because I know that…
Through the doings of my profession I have become an OT, and through becoming an OT I belong.