What is an Occupational Therapist Anyway?
A Challenge for New Grads and an Explanation for our Families and Friends
Valedictory Address from the University of Manitoba’s Graduating Ceremonies (abridged)
By Marcus Rempel
The substance of my speech is to answer one question:
What does it mean to be an occupational therapist?
Within that question, I also want to fulfil the two tasks given
to every valedictorian, namely to reflect on our shared
history as students, and to express hopes for our futures.
artially, this speech is for the benefit of the many Now about that word occupation
proud family members and friends who have come Just in case your grad has not yet hammered the message
out to celebrate with us tonight. Many of you are home — by occupation, occupational therapists mean far
probably sitting there right now looking at the grad you more than what people do to make money. Occupations are
came here with thinking, She looks so smart. He looks so everything people do to occupy themselves (CAOT, 1997);
handsome. or She did it! or Finally, he decided what to be they are all the activities that make up the stuff of daily life.
when he grows up. But, what is he? What is she? She graduated And in the way that occupational therapists understand the
from University, I’m proud of that…It’s a professional degree world, those occupations are an important determinant of
— something medical related — that impresses me, but the balance of physical, mental and social well-being that we
WHAT IS AN OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST? call health.
Some of the grads in this class will get jobs where they Let me illustrate this by reflecting on how our role as
make splints for people recovering from hand injuries, oth- students affected our lives and our health for the past three
ers will be teaching social skills to people suffering from psy- years. Since September 1997, all 30 of us have occupied a fair
chiatric disorders, and others may hire themselves out as bit of our time by studying. I would guess that for most of
consultants to schools seeking to make their environments us, it was our primary occupation, even though we did not
more accessible to people with disabilities. What defines all make money at it. In fact, we went into considerable debt to
these jobs as occupational therapy? How do we articulate for support this habit. But as an occupation, it still contributed
ourselves the common thread that ties us all together? What considerably to our well-being.
does it mean to be an occupational therapist? What have we Let me explain. This occupation of studenthood was a
learned in these past three years that qualifies us to offer a source of meaning and purpose for us, something we all
unique contribution to so many different health care jobs? need to be healthy human beings. Our student occupation
It has to do with how occupational therapists think and was the reason we got out of bed every weekday morning
see the world. More precisely, I believe it is our understand- (often much earlier than we may have desired). It gave us a
ing of the relationship between occupation and health. title we could apply to ourselves at parties or on job applica-
Ann Allart Wilcock, an Australian Professor of tions. It provided the context for rich social interaction.
Occupational Therapy, put forward an occupational per- Close and abiding friendships formed over these three years.
spective of health which sees health as a balance of physical, In the shared challenges and struggles of student life we
mental and social well-being attained through socially val- developed our abilities to care for one another as persons.
ued and individually meaningful occupation (Wilcock, This class was superb in this respect.
1998). Well-being attained through occupation — in that If you were sick and couldn’t make it to class, someone got
powerful idea lies the root of our title, occupational thera- notes and handouts for you. If you were having a birthday,
pist, and the source of what we have to offer the world. someone brought cake for you. If you couldn’t stand to
10 OT NOW • JULY/AUGUST 2000
look at another lab specimen, someone would always vent As we head out into a myriad of different kinds of jobs…
with you. And if you were getting married or expecting a Let us remember what we believe in, for herein lies the root
baby, someone would throw a shower to celebrate with and source of our identity as occupational therapists. Being a
you. professional means that you profess something.
Our occupation as students stimulated our minds and
allowed us opportunity for self-expression and recognition So let us remember that understanding occupation as an agent
through exams and projects. Through the crucible of a thou- of health and well-being is both the art and the science that
sand group meetings, we refined our abilities to work undergirds our craft (Wilcock, 1998).
together as team players and solve problems cooperatively.
As we ran to get to class on time or did calisthenics with Let us remember that we profess to respect and care for “each
peers at lunch time, we maintained our physical fitness. client as a unique, complex and capable individual”
And, yes, even our financial health, though it may have (Thibeault, 2000).
suffered these last several years, looks promising. Yes, rest
assured, dear parents, dear spouses, dear loan managers at Let us remember our commitment to social inclusiveness and
the Bank of Grandma and Grandpa, it looks as though we equity, our vision for a world of justice, where all individuals
will make good on your investment in us. For we are today are valued members of the community with a right to partici-
among the fortunate ones who have made it through the pate in meaningful occupations (Egan & DeLaat, 1997); and
career and education lottery alright, and find ourselves grad-
uating into a field where people actually want to hire us and Let us all remember to continually reflect on the experience of
are even willing to pay decent money to have someone with our own lives, as students, as professionals, as spouses, parents
our particular credentials in their employ. or friends to deepen our understanding of how we attain health
So here we are, a class of proud and smiling graduates, a through engagement in meaningful occupations.
living example of a mental, physical social and even fiscal
well-being attained through occupation. What does it mean to be an occupational therapist? This
The reason there are jobs waiting for us is that many has been my answer to that question. occupational therapy
people in our society are not as fortunate as we find our- graduates of 2000, I leave you with the rest of your careers to
selves to be at this moment. For many, the barriers to occu- offer your answers. I’m sure they will be excellent.
pation and thus to health come through medical disorders,
such as hand injury, developmental delay, schizophrenia or
stroke. This is where most of the jobs are - at least those that References
have the title “staff occupational therapist” attached to them. Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. (1997).
Many of us in this class will go on to challenging, fulfill- Enabling occupation: An occupational therapy perspec-
ing and important careers enabling people with medical dis- tive. Ottawa, ON: CAOT Publications ACE.
orders to gain the skills they need, to change their environ- Egan, M., & DeLaat, M.D. (1997). The implicit spirituality of
ments or to modify their occupations such that they will occupational therapy practice. Canadian Journal of
overcome the barriers to their attaining well-being in and Occupational Therapy, 64, 115-121.
through occupation. Thibeault, R. (2000). Magnum miraculum est homo.
But some of us, I hope, will broaden the scope of their Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, 3-6.
practice beyond the constraints of the medical view of disor- Wilcock, A. A. (1998). An occupational perspective of health.
der. Given our holistic and occupational perspective on health Thorofare, NJ: Slack Inc.
and well-being, leaders in our profession such as Wilcock Wilcock, A. A. (1998). Reflections on doing, being and
(1998) are beginning to call on us to include other disorders becoming. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy,
in our diagnostic vocabulary, some of the “disorders of our 65, 248-256.
time like occupational deprivation, occupational alienation,
occupational imbalance, and occupational injustice.” I hope
that some of us will be able follow that call in our careers. Marcus Rempel recently graduated from the University of
Manitoba’s Occupational Therapy Program. As of July 17,
With whomever we practice… 2000, he will begin a position as staff occupational therapist
Let us retain the broad and deep perspectives on the nature of at the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre,
health and the nature of occupation that we inherit now as 120 Tecumseh St., Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3E 2A9.
new members of this profession. Tel. (204) 477-6391.
OT NOW • JULY/AUGUST2000 11