How Can Occupational Therapy Help Employees with Disabilities?

How Can Occupational Therapy Help Employees with Disabilities?

October is Occupational Therapy month! This month we celebrate the health care professionals that focus on helping individuals participate in the activities in life that are meaningful and important. “Occupation” refers to anything you do to “occupy your time” – Occupational Therapists (OTs) are activity-focused and help to remove barriers to activity engagement for individuals with physical, mental, cognitive and/or sensory impairments.

October also happens to be National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). NDEAM is an annual campaign that takes place every October to promote inclusive work environments and recognize the positive impact employees with disability have on the workplace. The 2021 theme is Engaging Talent in the Disability Inclusion Evolution, which reflects the power of investing in the talent of skilled people who have a disability (NDEAM, 2021).

Disability in the Workplace

Disability is defined as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions)” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). 22% of Canadians have a disability and only 59% of Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 are employed compared to 80% of Canadians without a disability (Government of Canada).

Implementing a comprehensive disability management program can have many health, economic, and social benefits for employees and employers. People with disabilities who are enabled to have meaningful employment experience increased levels of physical and psychological well-being. Organizations that hire people with disabilities and implement workplace accommodations report the following benefits, according to survey results from the The Job Accommodation Network and Accenture:

  • 72% increase in productivity
  • 45% better workplace safety
  • 30% higher profit margins
  • 89% reported that accommodations helped retain employees
  • 56% reported increased employee attendance

How does an Occupational Therapist help enable employment for employees with disabilities?

A popular model that OTs use to identify and remove barriers for their clients is the PEO model (Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy). PEO stands for: Person – Environment – Occupation. An OT will assess each of these components to find the source of the barrier(s) to activity participation and engagement. Once the barriers are determined, the OT intervention plan is developed to help the client reach their goals. 

  • Person: physical, emotional, mental, cognitive, social, spiritual
  • Occupation: leisure, productivity, self-care activities – what does the person need or want to do that they are having difficulty with?
  • Environment: how does the physical, social, institutional, cultural environments impact activity engagement?

A work-focused OT uses this same model to assess and determine appropriate accommodations, with slightly different wording. At Gowan Consulting, our OTs use the WORK-WORKER-WORKPLACE model.

WORK (occupation):

  • What are the job demands? (I.e., what tasks does the employee need to complete to achieve the outcome of the role?) OTs measure the physical, cognitive, sensory, and emotional components of the job.

WORKER (person):

  • What are the employee’s abilities and limitations? (Physical, cognitive, sensory, emotional)

WORKPLACE (environment):

  • How does the work environment impact the employee? (Workplace culture, physical workspace, institutional or organizational impacts)

By looking thoroughly at all of these components through interviewing, job observation, and standardized testing, the Occupational Therapist can determine the source of the barriers and develop accommodation recommendations and/or intervention plan.

An OT can be engaged to address potential barriers at any point in the work lifecycle, including at the following stages:

  • Hiring and selection
  • Onboarding and training
  • Retention and ongoing support
  • Role transition

What can employers do to support employees with disabilities?

  • Recognize if an employee is struggling to engage with any aspect of work.
  • Fulfill your duty to inquire about accommodations. If you recognize that an employee is struggling to complete aspects of their role, ask them whether they require accommodations or adjustment to their work.
  • Offer appropriate accommodation. Ask for help from an Occupational Therapist in assessing, determining, and implementing accommodation strategies (changes to the work or workplace and teaching the worker skills and strategies to be successful).
  • Never ask for a diagnosis – our Occupational Therapists help protect your legal compliance by ensuring confidentiality of the employee’s medical information.

How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

Gowan Consulting provides a structured approach to disability management from prevention to intervention to return to function. Our Occupational Therapists and our individualized solution-focused approach gives your organization the tools it needs to manage employees’ health needs as they arise in order to minimize the possibility or impact of work disability. We can provide the following services and training:


“Disability and Health Overview,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, September 16, 2020,

“Making an accessible Canada for persons with disabilities,” Government of Canada, June 4, 2021

“The Participation of People with Disabilities in the Workplace Across the Employment Cycle: Employer Concerns and Research Evidence,” Silvia Bonaccio et. al, Journal of Business and Psychology, January 22, 2019,

“Myths And Facts About Disability Employment: Q&A With A Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist,” Sarah Kim, Forbes, Oct 25, 2019,

“Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage,” Accenture, 2018,

Law, M., Cooper, B. A., Strong, S., Stewart, D., Rigby, P., & Letts, L. (1996). The person-environment-occupation model: A transactive approach to occupational performance. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63, 9-23.

ODEN’s annual NDEAM campaign, 2021,

Leave Comment