Shampa Dhara — in despair after her limbs were amputated following an electric shock — works on her computer today. Thanks to the efforts of occupational therapists, the 22-year-old computer enthusiast can use specially-designed tools that help her to dress, or operate the computer.
There are some people — such as the experts who helped Shampa at the National Institute of Orthopaedically Handicapped (NIOH), Calcutta — who make life easier for people with physical or mental disabilities. Occupational therapists help people develop or regain skills needed to carry out day-to-day chores.
As opposed to a physiotherapist who treats problems related to pain and weakness, an occupational therapist (OT) helps a patient to be self-sufficient. “As in Shampa’s case, an OT’s basic job is to ensure that patients live to the best of their abilities. Our treatment is through activity in which the patient is involved fully, and not medication,” says Pankaj Bajpai, head of the occupational therapy department, NIOH.
When patients visit an OT, they may have problems varying from difficulty in handling buttons to lack of balance. The OT tries to restore these skills. Mental disorders, cognitive and perceptual problems, designing of hand splints, assistive technology and bodily function development are all part of OT.
“OT intervention begins from the point where the service of a physiotherapist ends,” says Shovan Saha, head of the department of occupational therapy, Manipal College of Allied Health Sciences, Manipal.
A therapist should be able to think creatively and cater to each case, which is unique in its own way. “An OT needs to be dedicated and compassionate. He also needs to be a great motivator because he has to instil the mental strength that patients and family members need for the long and arduous process of rehabilitation,” says Saha.
Other than in medical areas, an OT can work in schools to identify and treat children with learning problems, in non-governmental organisations, in industrial set-ups to help people recover from accidents, in old-age homes and on ergonomic designs. “Today, the job prospects for an OT are very good. They can work in special schools, neurological hospitals, orthopaedic hospitals and psychiatric homes,” says Lordson Simpson, a Chennai-based OT and convenor of the All India Occupational Therapists Association (AIOTA).
Many institutes in the country offer AIOTA-approved graduate courses (BSc) in occupational therapy, including an internship programme. “Any bioscience student with 50 per cent aggregate marks is eligible,” says Bajpai. Most institutes have entrance exams.
Some institutions that offer graduate-level occupational therapy courses are NIOH, Calcutta, the National Institute of Rehabilitation, Training and Research (NIRTAR), Cuttack, the Institute for the Physically Handicapped (IPH), New Delhi, Christian Medical College and Hospital (CMC), Vellore, L.T.M. Medical College and Sion Hospital, Mumbai, and Manipal College of Allied Health Sciences, Manipal. The course fee varies. For instance, it costs around Rs 35,000 per year (including course fee, lodging, boarding and food) at NIOH while the cost could be as high as Rs 1.50 lakh per year in private colleges.
“I believe this is the most satisfying profession in the world,” says Trideb Chatterjee, an OT with Manovikas Kendra, a Calcutta-based NGO that works for children with special needs. “When I design a tool that helps a child to walk and I see a smile on the faces of the parents, the feeling is something that I cannot explain in words,” he says.
Neeti Kumari, a final year student at NIOH, stresses that opportunities for OTs have increased over the years. “Our four-year course equips us so well that various hospitals from around the country readily offer us jobs,” she says.
A fresh graduate can earn anywhere between Rs 15,000 and 25,000 in the private sector. “There are hardly any posts in West Bengal government hospitals but in states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the demand is fairly high even in government hospitals,” says Bajpai. Private hospitals have also started realising the importance of OTs.
The prospects of getting a job abroad are fairly high. “According to a rough estimate, about 60 to 65 per cent of the graduates usually get placed abroad. This is one of the most lucrative jobs now,” says Saha.
So if you have compassion and innovation in you — along with dedication — you could think of becoming an OT. It’s a profession — and a mission.