When I began to study occupational therapy, I discovered a very sad fact. The scope and beauty of the profession is for the most part unknown and primarily misunderstood. Those who know a little about the profession usually think it is aimless usage of crafts, or has something to do with either rehabilitation after a physical disability or for learning problems. The truth is, the profession encompasses each of these and more.

What can it do to help me?If we take a look at the definition of the profession, we see that occupational therapy involves prevention, promotion and rehabilitation of an individual or group in order to ensure optimal functioning of the person or persons attending or seeking intervention.

Quite broad? Yes. Achievable? Yes. But how? What can it do to help me?

The first issue we will deal with affects, predominantly, someone with learning difficulties. When do we first meet the idea that there is a sequence and appropriate environment which is most conducive to achieving our optimum potential? As Jews, our instinctual reaction should be to look into the Torah, and there it is. On Adam's very first day, he was told that there is timing to everything and a best environment. Adam and Eve chose to disregard the guidance of G‑d and ate from the tree out of order, i.e. earlier than was intended. Had they just waited a few more hours, G‑d would have enabled them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and, they'd receive the lessons it was to teach them. Had they waited, they would have remained in the Garden of Eden, the optimum place for their learning and growth.

Having taken their progress into their own hands, they fell almost immediately. The old saying holds true — you can not walk before you can crawl, or crawl before you can sit. So we see that there is a sequence to everything and G‑d is the one who knows best. So it is that we are taught that the Torah is the Elixer of Life and the manual of how to succeed in life.

How does this apply to health or daily living or occupational therapy? Let us look at one of our famous masters, Maimonides, known as the Rambam, who provided us with a set of works on Torah law outlining each of the commandments. The Rambam, who was a doctor, teaches us very specifically that when it comes to health, the best approach is that prevention is better than cure. How does this apply to learning or a school environment?

Let us look again at the first day, even before the sin occurred. We see that once G‑d had created the world, the heavens, seas, plants and animals, and came to create man, something amazing occurred. G‑d fashioned the body of man, breathed into his nostrils and the soul of man came into being. Thus the soul and body were united. Why is this so important to us? Because we, as human beings, need to breathe. Our very soul depends on it.

When it comes to health, prevention is better than cureFor this reason, if you look at the environmental guidelines for health, one of the first factors listed is adequate ventilation. Just as Adam required air, man in our day and age requires, and can not function without, adequate ventilation, natural sunlight, space, the right temperature. In addition, appropriate cleanliness, furniture and organization in our environment all have a part to play in our ability to receive information and learn effectively.

Why do I mention this? It is a sad fact that in many parts of the world, appropriate environmental factors for the occupational therapy room is not given priority. As a result, the treatment rooms can be found in a basement or small room tucked at the back of a pre-school. The reality is that occupational therapy is being provided to children who need to improve their concentration and attention. However, if the environment does not provide the necessary oxygen, the crucial sunlight, or it is dirty, disorganized, with no windows and a temperature that is either too hot or too cold, then those basic factors on their own will prevent the child from concentrating or attending to what is expected of him or her.

And it does not help to do sport type of activities with a child in order to improve gross motor function in a room that is too small, does not have adequate ventilation or has other environmental factors that affect it.

What can you do?

There are bylaws ensuring that each building has a certain amount of windows and adequate ventilation, according to its size and function. If you suspect that the classroom, treatment room or other room that your child uses does not have adequate ventilation, is over-crowded has a sanitation or pollution problem, you can:

  • Consult with the municipality. There should be a senior administrator whose job it is to ensure safety at work or school
  • Consult the local health department to investigate
  • Consult the environmental health department who will have the appropriate equipment to evaluate the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide that will verify whether there is adequate ventilation. Most schools and kindergartens are not being evaluated, or if they are, it is not on a regular basis. As a parent, you can request that these evaluations take place.

Most schools and kindergartens are not being evaluatedOften, the children receiving occupational therapy services come to school by school transport. As a result, the parents don't have the opportunity to see the conditions of the room. Request to have a look. If the room is too small for physical exercise, make a mention to the therapist and school body. If there is mold or poor ventilation or the ceiling has panels missing and exposes pipes, then there is a danger to the health and safety of your child. If the furniture is broken, or if your child cannot sit at the table with his or her feet comfortably and squarely on the floor or cannot sit in an upright posture, then there is a need for alterations. You, as a parent, have a right to insist on an inspection and appropriate intervention.

If you can not do anything to effect a change, then take your child to a school that does provide adequate services. You have the right and responsibility to ensure that your child receives the best possible education, intervention and services. The place to begin is to make sure that the environment, furniture and equipment is appropriate for the learning situation and for the therapeutic or remedial intervention required. If you do not know what the best and most suitable environmental conditions are, go to a library and do some reading. Become informed and if that does not help, ask your occupational therapist.

Remember, one of the main roles for us is to apply the teachings of the Torah and to disseminate this to the other nations. As the Rambam states, the place to begin is with ensuring the appropriate conditions that will be conducive to health, and through this enable the most optimum level of learning.