Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2023 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G
Finding meaning in what matters
Author: Christina Sexton
Occupational therapist Elaura Hanger works for Guide Dogs Queensland helping people with vision impairments achieve whatever matters to them.
“Finding my way to occupational therapy is kind of a long story,” said Elaura.
“When I graduated from high school in Brisbane, I moved to New Zealand to study dentistry. But during my first year I got really sick with meningitis, septicemia and pericarditis all at once and I almost died. When I got better, I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to be a dentist?’ I knew the answer was no.”
“I moved home to Brisbane and I stumbled across OT after originally thinking I’d try physio,” she said. “But once I started the degree, I loved it straight away.
“Then during a prac, I sat in on a consultation between an OT and a family whose daughter had a disability.
All they wanted to do was help her go on a cruise and get her wheelchair onto the beach so she could feed the dolphins. It was then that I really understood what an amazing job occupational therapists have. It’s all about helping people achieve whatever is meaningful to them.”
Occupational therapy truths
Elaura is used to people being slightly unsure about her profession, and misunderstandings are common.
“The biggest misconception about OTs is everyone thinks we just help people find jobs,” she said. “The truth is, ‘occupation’ means anything that occupies your time. Your occupations can be your everyday tasks, like getting dressed and fed in the morning.
But it’s also about doing meaningful activities you love that improve your quality of life and independence. So really, it’s almost easier to think about what OT doesn’t encompass as opposed to what it does, it’s just so varied.”
Guiding the way
Elaura is now happily working for Guide Dogs Queensland, which like OT itself can lead to a few misunderstandings.
“Everyone thinks I’m a dog trainer playing with labradors all day!” she said. “While yes, I do get to walk by the puppy pen at work, which I love, and some of my clients have Guide Dogs, there’s so much more to what we do.
“In my role, for example, I teach people how to modify and use appliances and I’ll teach them safe cooking techniques through modifying the activities. I also help our clients access equipment like talking scales and electronic magnifiers.
“Occupational therapy is new to Guide Dogs Queensland. They’ve only been employing OTs for the past few years. They’ve worked hard to promote us and everyone can see the value an OT brings to the vision impaired people that we are supporting.”
Empathy, not sympathy
“To be a good OT and to work somewhere like Guide Dogs Queensland, you have to have empathy, not sympathy. I think this distinction is very important,” Elaura said.
“You have to be an empathetic person who can see someone struggling with a vision impairment and be proactive and willing to say, ‘OK, let’s do something about this’, rather than just feeling sorry for them.
“If someone has a vision impairment – or if they’re in a wheelchair, or it could be anything really – and they tell me all they want to do is be able to paint their toenails, then it’s up to me say, ‘Great, we’re going to make that happen.’ It’s not about getting them to choose a better goal. It’s about what matters to them.”