CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


OTAs help people get their lives back

By David Chilton
Special to the Toronto Sun

Hopping on the subway to go to work is so simple, so routine that it's automatic for most people. But for someone who's had a stroke, say, finding the northbound platform or managing to change lines at Spadina station can be a challenge.
An OTA at work at Providence Centre in Toronto. OTAs enable people to get back into the swing of their former lives following physical trauma or problems with their mental health.

That's the sort of challenge an occupational therapist assistant takes up with their clients, helping them cope with temporary or permanent limitations on activities they once took for granted.

Humber College and CDI College, both in Toronto, offer OTA programs for high school graduates or career changers interested in pursuing a job that even its practitioners admit has a low profile.

"There isn't a real strong public awareness about what OTAs do," says Dean Dickinson, a program advisor in the OTA program at Humber.

He says OTAs enable people to get back into the swing of their former lives following physical trauma or problems with their mental health. That could mean teaching them to use "assistive devices" to dress themselves or to cook, for example. For clients suffering from dementia, OTAs adapt their help accordingly.

"Occupational Therapist Assistants work with individuals, families, groups, organizations and agencies to help individuals perform self-care, be productive and to participate in leisure," is how Humber puts it.

16-month program

The college, which took 27 students into its full-time 16-month program this year, requires high school graduation with credits in English and biology, and will accept applications from mature students. Applicants will also have to complete a questionnaire identifying their goals and their commitment to the field of rehabilitation. There may also be a pre-admission test of an applicant's reading and writing skills and knowledge of biology.

The college requires students to have current basic CPR and Standard First Aid certificates, and will give preference to applicants who can document at least 50 hours of practical experience in rehabilitation. All students accepted into the program will have to complete three clinical work placements before they graduate.
  • Humber College and CDI College both offer full-time OTA programs.
  • Applicants need high school graduation, although mature student applications are considered.
  • Pay for OTAs in the public sector starts at about $17 an hour.
  • Most graduates find jobs in hospitals; others work in long-term care and private clinics.
  • Employment rates for graduates is in the high 70% to low 80% range.

  • Dickinson says his students tend to fall into one of three roughly equal groups: high school graduates; those with some college, university or work experience; and applicants who already have a diploma or degree. Their age range varies. Dickinson says it begins at 18 and he recalls one student who was 61. About 10% to 12% of the students at Humber are male. The college charges about $2,200 tuition.

    Kathy Guindon, a second-year OTA student at Humber, says for anyone considering the program it's essential to like working with other people. Self-discipline helps, too. Guindon says studying to be an OTA isn't difficult if the student has time-management skills and is motivated and goal-driven.

    Job prospects

    The job prospects for OTAs aren't quite as rosy as their first cousins, physiotherapy assistants (PTA), although the pay in the public sector is about the same at $17 an hour or so to start. Most OTAs work in hospitals, says Dickinson, with some opting for long-term care or private clinics. He puts the employment rate for OTA graduates in the high 70% to low 80% range. The PTA rate is usually above 90%.

    Elaine Campana graduated from Humber in June. She says finding employment was easy for her, although she acknowledges "it's quite a competitive field for jobs."

    Campana, who spent a year studying to be a nurse before realizing it wasn't for her, says she wanted to stay in health care, and being an OTA fit the bill. "I found it was the perfect job," says Campana, who works at Providence Health Care, a Toronto rehabilitation hospital.

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