Occupational Therapy Assistant Career Profile

Occupational therapy is a regime of physiological and psychological activities and exercises designed to enable patients with disabilities to lead productive lives. Occupational therapy first targets improving a patient’s ability to conduct the basic activities of daily living (ADLs), specifically their mobility in and around their living space, bathing/showering, dressing, self-feeding, personal hygiene and toilet hygiene. Next, occupational therapy seeks to improve a broad range of patients’ more general or “instrumental” ADLs such as housework, cooking, child care and the use of telephones or computers. Occupational therapy also helps disabled patients identify and participate in pastime and leisure activities that they find rewarding.

A Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) works under the supervision of an occupational therapist to guide and motivate patients in prescribed therapeutic activities, measure the patient’s ADL improvement and alter or continue the therapy plan accordingly. They help patients develop, recover and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapy assistants are directly involved in providing therapy to patients. Both occupational therapy assistants and aides work under the direct supervision of occupational therapists.

OTAs work in acute care and rehabilitation hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, schools and home care settings. They spend much of their time on their feet, setting up equipment and, in the case of assistants, working with patients.

COTAs must be fit as assisting patients will require supporting patient weight, bending and lifting. The ideal COTA is self-confident, detail oriented, compassionate, and open minded. Oral communication and listening skills are critical. COTAs must be prepared to push patients to achieve their treatments goals. Being able to walk the line between compassion for a patient in pain and demanding that a patient try harder requires a certain type of person.

Most COTAs work full-time. Their hours might vary with patients’ schedules. COTAs generally work day shifts but their schedules can entail night shift and weekend hours. They typically are eligible for health benefits, paid vacation and 401K participation.

A COTAs work environment is compassionate, team oriented and professional. They might work in patients’ living spaces – in their rooms or homes or in specially designed therapy rooms. COTAs often employ innovative adaptive technologies which lends an unusual dimension to their work space.

What does it feel like to be a COTA?

Imagine working with a teenage girl who has lost her lower legs in a car accident. Her dream is to return to school and lead a normal life, but she has to learn how to use her prosthetic legs and adapt to all the obstacles she will encounter at home, going to and from school, fulfilling her role as a student and enjoying time with her friends. As a COTA, you work with her for months, through pain, frustration and tears. Now, imagine two years later watching her walk across the high school stage to receive her diploma. That’s what it feels like to be a COTA. COTA is ranked 19th among the 100 Best Jobs published by US News and World Report.

COTA is also among the fastest growing professions in our economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in COTA employment of 40 percent between 2014 and 2024.

To enter the profession, one must obtain an Associate’s Degree from a program accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association. If not included in the program of study, one must complete a clinical practicum of at least sixteen weeks. With a degree and practicum completed, candidates must pass the COTA exam and then apply for and receive state licensure.

Because of the high demand for occupational therapists, many employers and schools work with COTAs to obtain their master’s degree and become licensed occupational therapists.

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