Occupational Therapy vs. Speech Therapy: Uses, Benefits, and More

Occupational therapy (OT) and speech therapy (ST) both fall into the category of rehabilitation therapy. Though there is some overlap, each is a distinct field with a specific purpose.

The goal of OT is to help a person who is injured, ill, or disabled do things that are important to them and to work on solutions to problems that interfere with their ability to do so. Occupational therapists (OTs) may help with areas such as self-care, school or work, leisure activities, and more.

ST (also called speech-language pathology) focuses specifically on challenges with communication and/or feeding/swallowing.

Read on to learn more about OT and ST and how they intersect.

Occupational therapist works with a woman

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What to Know About Occupational Therapy

OT looks at the whole person and finds ways to help them lead the lives they want to lead. Despite the name, occupational therapy does not refer to employment (though functioning on the job may be addressed if appropriate), but rather to functioning in a wide range of activities.

How Does Occupational Therapy Work?

OTs help people of all ages with the ability to participate in a variety of areas, including:

  • Their jobs
  • School
  • Social activities
  • Hobbies and leisure activities
  • Mobility and "getting around"
  • Self-care tasks, such as dressing and hygiene
  • Caring for their home
  • Anything else that is important to them

For example, OTs may help with:

  • Children and teachers in a classroom setting on skills to help students thrive
  • Assessing and treating cognitive impairment for people who are in the hospital following a stroke or brain injury
  • Helping those in mental illness outpatient programs manage their conditions and live independently
  • Helping people whose physical abilities have changed identify, acquire, and use equipment (such as mobility devices or safety equipment) needed to return to or remain at home
  • Helping people determine and acquire what they need to perform daily activities following an injury
  • Working with people who have experienced a change in their physical or mental abilities on reintegrating into the workplace

OTs may help a person develop the necessary skills to perform a task, and/or they may make the task/environment more accessible. Strategies used by OTs include:

  • Activity-based interventions
  • Adaptive techniques
  • Assistive technology
  • Environmental adaptations

The roles of an OT are to:

  • Assess: What does the person want to do and what are the barriers to doing it?
  • Plan: Short- and long-term treatment goals
  • Initiate interventions: Teaching new techniques, providing adaptive equipment and resources, reducing environmental barriers, etc.
  • Cooperate: Coordinating with other professionals, families, caregivers, etc.

Delivery of Occupational Therapy

Before starting treatment, an OT will assess:

  • The person's physical and mental abilities
  • The materials and devices a person uses to participate in activities
  • The social and emotional support available to the person
  • The physical setup of their environment (house, classroom, workplace, etc.)

When needs and goals have been established, an OT will:

  • Help the person use, improve, or maintain the abilities they have
  • Introduce adaptive materials and devices (such as shower chairs, playing card holders, or other equipment)
  • Recommend changes to the environments in which the person engages in everyday activities, such as home or work

Where to Get Occupational Therapy

OTs offer services in a variety of settings, including:

  • Private practice
  • Home care
  • Community centers and programs
  • Hospitals
  • Care facilities
  • Schools

OT may be recommended as part of an established treatment plan for an injury or condition or following a hospital stay. You can also find an OT for yourself or your child by:

  • Talking to your healthcare provider or another healthcare professional
  • Asking for referrals from the school nurse or guidance counselor
  • Contacting a local hospital or rehabilitation center
  • Contacting your state's occupational therapy association

What to Know About Speech Therapy

ST addresses speech disorders, language disorders, and oral feeding/swallowing disorders.

How Does Speech Therapy Work?

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) often work with children but are available for people of any age. They can help with:

  • Articulation disorders: Difficulty making sounds in syllables, or saying words incorrectly
  • Fluency disorders: Such as stuttering
  • Resonance or voice disorders: Problems with pitch, volume, or quality of the voice
  • Receptive disorders: Difficulty with understanding or processing language
  • Expressive disorders: Problems with putting words together or vocabulary or using language in a socially appropriate way
  • Pre-literacy and literacy skills: Such as decoding, reading comprehension, and writing
  • Cognitive-communication disorders: Difficulty with communication skills involving memory, perception, attention, regulation, organization, problem-solving, and social communication
  • Language delays and disorders: Such as oral and non-verbal expression and comprehension
  • Swallowing and feeding disorders: Such as problems with chewing, swallowing, coughing, gagging, refusing foods, etc.

SLPs can help with communication and swallowing difficulties relating to a number of issues, including:

  • Dementia
  • Developmental, intellectual, or genetic disorders
  • Hearing impairments
  • Neurological impairments
  • Traumatic brain injury

How Do I Know if My Child Has a Speech or Language Challenge?

An estimated 10% of children face speech or language challenges. Though every child develops differently, there are some speech and language developmental milestones to look for at certain ages.

If you have concerns about your child regarding these milestones, talk with your healthcare provider.

Delivery of Speech Therapy

SLPs work with people one on one, in small groups, or in a classroom setting. Strategies SLPs use include:

  • Language intervention activities involve stimulating language development and building language skills by modeling vocabulary and grammar and using repetition exercises. For children, this involves interactions such as playing, talking, use of pictures/books/objects, etc.
  • Articulation therapy involves modeling correct sounds and syllables in words/sentences (during play or other activities) and teaching the person to make specific sounds (such as showing them how to move their tongue).
  • Oral-motor/feeding and swallowing therapy involves strengthening the muscles of the mouth using oral exercises (tongue, lips, jaw, etc.) and introducing different food textures and temperatures.

Where to Get Speech Therapy

To find an SLP:

What Are the Educational Requirements for Speech Therapists and Occupational Therapists?

OTs and SLPs are professionals, requiring:

In addition, SLPs need a certificate of clinical competency from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). OTs must take the national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).

Which Treatment Is Best for You?

Which type of therapy to use depends on the goals of treatment.

Speech therapy focuses on communication and swallowing disorders. It's also more commonly for children than adults.

ST may be a good choice for addressing:

OT takes a broader, more holistic approach. The goal of OT is to support independence and quality of life for the person's whole life rather than focusing on a specific area. OTs work with people of all ages but often choose a specialty such as pediatrics or gerontology.

An OT may be a good choice for addressing:

  • Developmental delays and/or behavioral difficulties in children
  • Play and social skills
  • Academic and cognitive skills
  • Self-care routines
  • Fine motor and handwriting skills
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Independent functioning in activities (work, school, leisure, home, etc.)
  • The person's environment (evaluating and adapting)
  • Adaptive equipment and care techniques
  • Other issues surrounding the person's ability to do the things that are important to them

Which Treatment Should I Choose?

If you aren't sure which type of treatment to pursue, talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you tailor a treatment plan to your specific needs.

Can Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy Be Used Together?

It's common for OTs and SLPs to collaborate or for a person to receive both types of therapies.

For example, an OT might help with a person's postural stability, improving the effectiveness of swallowing and/or speech therapy given by an SLP.

People with speech-language difficulties often have coexisting issues that could benefit from OT. For example, a person with an articulation disorder may also have fine-motor difficulties. A person who has had a stroke may need help reestablishing independence and regaining language skills.

Coordinating OT and ST can offer many benefits, including:

  • Combining skill building within the same activities (such as sensory and/or motor activities while working on language or vice versa, increasing exposure to both)
  • A more holistic experience
  • Accommodation of specific needs with both treatments
  • More enjoyable therapy sessions


Occupational therapy and speech therapy are distinct but complementary types of rehabilitation therapies.

OT addresses the whole person and helps them engage in the activities that are important to them, with a focus on independence. This might include working, going to school, taking care of themselves and their home, enjoying hobbies or leisure activities, or other areas that contribute to quality of life. OTs work with people of all ages.

ST focuses specifically on speech, language, communication, and feeding/swallowing challenges. SLPs work with people of all ages but more commonly work with children than adults.

OT and ST can be administered on their own or in combination, depending on the person's needs.

A Word From Verywell

If you or your child are having communication or feeding struggles, OT and/or ST may help. OT may also be beneficial in a number of other areas. If you think either (or both) of these therapies might be worth looking into, contact your healthcare provider.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.