Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapy - Definition

Occupational therapy is the art and science of enabling engagement in everyday living, through occupation; of enabling people to perform the occupations that foster health and well-being; and of enabling a just and inclusive society so that all people may participate to their potential in the daily occupations of life (Townsend& Polatajko, 2013, p. 380).

Occupational therapists are highly trained health-care professionals. Effective 2008, entry level education requirements in Canada include a professional Master’s degree in occupational therapy.

Occupational therapists define an occupation as much more than a chosen career. Occupation refers to everything that people do during the course of everyday life.  Each of us have many occupations that are essential to our health and well-being.  Occupational therapists believe that occupations describe who you are and how you feel about yourself. A child, for example, might have occupations as a student, a playmate, a dancer and a table-setter.


Occupational therapists use a systematic approach based on evidence and professional reasoning to enable individuals, families, groups, communities, organizations, or populations to develop the means and opportunities to identify and engage in the occupations of life. This collaborative process involves assessing, planning, implementing, monitoring, modifying and evaluating the client in relation to occupational engagement in self-care, work, study, volunteerism and leisure. Occupational therapists use key enablement skills such as adaptation, advocacy, coaching, collaboration, consultation, coordination, designing/building, educating, engaging and specializing to enable occupation. Occupational therapists may assume different roles such as advising on; health risks in the workplace, safe driving for older adults, or programs to promote mental health for youth. Occupational therapists also perform functions as managers, researchers, program developers, educators, and practice scholars in addition to the direct delivery of professional services.

Practice Settings

Occupational therapists are generally employed in community agencies, health care organizations such as hospitals, chronic care facilities, rehabilitation centres and clinics, schools, social agencies, industry, or are self-employed. Some occupational therapists specialize in working with clients within a specific age group or disability such as those with arthritis, developmental coordination disorder, mental illness, or spinal cord injury.
Scope of Practice

Scope of practice for occupational therapy is determined by provincial acts. Please contact provincial regulatory body(ies) for more information. A full listing of provincial occupational therapy regulatory bodies can be found by clicking here.

CAOT has two important documents that may help therapists define your practice. The first document is the Profile of Occupational Therapy Practice in Canada (2012). The Profile of Occupational Therapy Practice in Canada reflects current evidence in the areas of competency and occupational therapy practice and integrates new information and models within a continuum of skills and knowledge needed by the occupational therapy workforce to meet health needs. The Profile identifies the seven main roles of occupational therapists as a/n:

  1. Expert in enabling occupation
  2. Communicator
  3. Collaborator
  4. Practice manager
  5. Change agent
  6. Scholarly practitioner and
  7. Professional

The second document to consult to define your practice is the latest set of guidelines for occupational therapy in Canada entitled, Enabling Occupation II: Advancing a Vision of Health, Well-being and Justice through Occupation, 2nd Ed. (Townsend & Polatajko, 2013).  This text states that occupational therapy is necessary when engagement in the occupations of everyday living becomes a challenge and that there are five essential elements to occupational therapy (as an expert in enabling occupation). All five essential elements should be present in all occupational enablement practices in the direct delivery of professional services to qualify as occupational therapy. The essential elements of occupational therapy practice are:

  1. Presence of an occupational challenge
  2. Possibility of solutions that enable occupation
  3. Client–specific goals/challenges/solutions and client-centred enablement
  4. Multidisciplinary knowledge base
  5. A reasoning process that can deal with complexity


Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. (2012). Profile of occupational  therapy practice in Canada. Ottawa, ON: CAOT.

Townsend, E.A. & Polatajko, H. J. (2013). Enabling occupation II: Advancing an occupational therapy vision for health, well-being & justice through occupation, 2nd Ed.. Ottawa, ON: CAOT.

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