Occupational therapy program celebrates 100 years of improving quality of life

Contact: Zinta Aistars
A student puts a seat belt on a child riding a tricycle.

When a health condition causes serious injury or impairment and suddenly everyday living seems almost impossible to navigate, an occupational therapist can be an immeasurably helpful guide to an improved quality of life.

"An occupational therapist helps people of all ages to live better with a disability, injury or illness. More than that, they help people do things that they find meaningful in their lives," says Dr. Debra Lindstrom, professor of occupational therapy.

"It’s not just about helping people do their jobs. We ask what is important to that person. What do they enjoy?"

The occupational therapy (OT) program is marking 100 years of educating students to provide this critical restorative care.

A black and white photo of students sitting at desks sewing.

An OT class in 1969.

What started with one instructor and just three students has become a department that today has 11 faculty members and an enrollment of 150 students. Over its tenure, the program has produced more than 10,000 occupational therapists.

The OT profession traces its beginning to 1917. So, in 1922, the year Marion R. Spear established what is today Western’s program, OT was still in its infancy as a profession. Located at the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital in those early days, the training program was one of the first of its kind in Michigan.

By 1939, it was just the fifth occupational therapy program in the country to be accredited. Five years later, with 30 students enrolled, the program offered a Bachelor of Science degree in occupational therapy. By 1953, the department had developed one of the first occupational therapy graduate programs in the country.

"There is much to be proud of here," says Dr. Nancy Hock, chair of Western's Department of Occupational Therapy.

That includes continuing to evolve to meet patient needs and advance the profession. In 2020, the department launched a clinical doctoral degree, with the first class set to graduate next year. This three-year OT doctorate (OTD) replaces the master’s degree program and is the second OTD program in the state of Michigan. Hock adds that the University's graduate program has traditionally ranked in the top of 50 occupational therapy programs nationally by U.S. News & World Report.

And just this past spring, the department welcomed its first cohort of students in the new occupational therapy assistant bachelor’s degree program. This program of study prepares a student to sit for the exam to become a practicing occupational therapy assistant or, alternatively, progress to graduate study.

"It gives our students lots of flexibility," Hock says.

The department’s next goal is to grow a fellowship program in collaboration with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"Our first fellow will begin this fall to work with patients who have experienced a neurological injury, such as traumatic brain injury, stroke or spinal cord injury. This fellowship will involve research activity, supervising students in the WMU teaching clinics and teaching content within the occupational therapy doctorate program," Hock says.

Among the department’s many points of pride is the open access journal. Founded in 2012, the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy is peer reviewed with a mission to publish high-quality articles focused on applied research, practice and education.

"There's only one other journal in the country like it," says Hock, who serves as the publication’s managing editor. "It’s free and interactive, open to everybody. Fred Sammons is our sponsor."

Sammons, who was named one of the 100 Most Influential Occupational Therapists by the American Occupational Therapy Association, is also the donor who made The Sammons Center for Innovation and Research in Occupation-based Technology on Western’s campus possible—a center that fosters innovation in the profession.

"The occupational therapy department is always innovating and changing based on needs in the profession," Hock says.

The department runs as many as a dozen faculty-led fieldwork clinics on campus and in the community, with students providing hands-on services. 

"Our clinics are mostly pro bono and serve people who are uninsured and underinsured. Students can see their professors as clinicians outside of the classroom while gaining valuable experience themselves."

In July 2022, the Department of Occupational Therapy formally celebrated 100 years of achievement. Faculty, alumni, donors and supporters came together for continuing education programs, student poster presentations, campus tours, an occupational therapy historical artifacts exhibit, cohort reunions and an alumni art exhibit.  ■