Most of us take it for granted that at least we can get up in the morning, wash, dress and have breakfast before the problems kick in. But for people with physical or mental disabilities, even apparently simple tasks can be a huge challenge. Fortunately, a group of professionals who remain largely invisible help these people to function on a daily basis and in many cases to lead productive, full lives.
Occupational therapists (OTs) work with people whose disabilities may have arisen from birth or due to ageing, an illness or an accident. Their aim is to help people to live as independently as possible.
Druid Fleming has been an OT at Camden and Islington Mental Health and Social Care Trust for eight years. Before that he worked in furniture design and lectured in woodwork in a prison. "You couldn't get a better job than this," he says. "It's tremendous. I work with people who have long term mental health problems. If they say, `I really want to live on my own in a flat', we can make that happen. You can really help to change people's lives. It's fantastic."
Rebecca Sheldon specialises in orthopaedics and hand injuries at the Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal Hospital NHS Trust. A young woman, who we shall call Laura, was referred to her in January 2001. Laura had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and arms by a man who broke into her home.
"Laura had extremely severe injuries and the nerves in her hands and arms were badly damaged," Sheldon says. "She couldn't do anything with them. We had splints made for her and after some time she developed a range of movement. Now she can write. To see someone who is so disabled pick up a pen is wonderful. In occupational therapy we look at the whole person. I tried to support Laura and her mother who were struggling to come to terms with how their lives had been changed forever."
Kate Bones, professional head of occupational therapy at East Sussex County Healthcare NHS Trust, says one of the attractions of the job is the wide range of areas in which OTs work: mental health, learning disabilities, paediatrics, care of older people, stroke rehabilitation, neurology, to name a few.
The British Association and College of Occupational Therapists is the professional body for OT staff and students in the UK. It currently has nearly 25,000 members. Sheelagh Richards, the chief executive, says there is a worrying shortage of OTs. "In the early 1990s little consideration was given to waiting lists or the burgeoning demand outside the NHS in private and voluntary services. But the Government has now given a commitment to significantly increase the number of OTs being educated."
Because the work is tailored to meet the client's needs, occupational therapy can take place in someone's home, in hospital or at work. OTs must factor in all the ways in which a person's physical, mental and social needs will impact on their recovery.
The range of clients and the complexity of their needs requires intelligence, intuitiveness and a certain amount of life experience. For that reason previous work experience is a bonus, so a career in occupational therapy can be attractive to mature people looking for a career change. Successful applicants tend to have sensitivity, tolerance, problem solving skills and the ability to work as part of a team.
A recent study showed that occupational therapists were mainly drawn to the job because of the challenging and varied nature of the work, one- to-one contact with clients, the opportunity to work creatively and the blend of craft and medicine.
Caroline Ashbolt works for the Mid-Sussex Primary Care Trust and is based at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath. She is profoundly deaf and has a hearing dog, Sable, that accompanies her throughout the day. "My disability is not immediately apparent so Sable increases people's awareness of the fact that I am deaf and can also break the ice. …