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Tomas Flanagan, Occupational Therapist
Psychology & Social Care

Tomas Flanagan, Occupational Therapist

Tomás Flanagan is an Occupational Therapist working for St Michael's House. Following his Leaving Certificate, he studied Occupational Therapy in Trinity College Dublin where he found the educational placements of particular relevance.  Following graduation he got an opportunity to work with children with Autism for a year which was very challenging but offered a great learning experience.

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What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

When I was a student studying Occupational Therapy I did some Summer work as a care assistant in a residential setting. This was my first time both working with children and in the area of intellectual disability.

While in College I recieved sponsorship from the Midland Health Board to work with them for a year once I graduated. The post involved working with children (ages 3-18) with a diagnosis of Autism. This was a challenging role but a great learning opportunity. At the end of that year I decided that I wanted to move back to Dublin. I was interested in working in the area of intellectual disability and came to St. Michael's House for interview. I've been here since November 2004.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

Up until about 5th year in secondary school I hadn't even heard of Occupational Therapy. It was at that stage in school when people were making decisions about what college courses they wanted to apply for.

I started looking up various courses and reading about different careers. I knew I wanted to work with people and I had a particular interest in the caring professions. I started ruling out courses for different reasons. I kept on coming back to Occupational Therapy but could not find much information on it. A friend of my sisters had recently qualified as an Occupational Therapist. She gave me information on the course and more details of the actual job. She helped me confirm that this was a career that I would enjoy.

How did you go about getting your current job?

My current job was advertised in the national newspapers. Before applying for the job I phoned the Occupational Therapy Manager in St. Michael's House to get some additional information on the post. Then I sent in my CV and was called for interview.

I was interviewed by the OT Manager, one of the Senior OTs and someone from Human Resources. The interview lasted about 30 minutes. A few days after the interview I was contacted to inform me that I was successful in the interview and I was being offered the job dependant on a medical exam. The medical was completed the following week and I was then sent a contract to sign, to formally accept the post.

Describe a typical day?

My current caseload has a mix of both children and adults, all of whom have a diagnosis of intellectual disability. At the moment I spend about 3 days a week working in a school for children with a dual diagnosis of intellectual disability and autism. Here I work closely with the teachers and special needs assistants in looking at the children's sensory needs as well as working on other skills e.g. handwriting, computer work, play development.

The rest of the week I work with adults that attend St. Michael's House services. A lot of the time is taken up with assessment and ordering of equipment e.g. wheelchairs, hoists. I would often see the service user within their day service but might sometimes see them at home. Assessment of the home environment and recommendations for adaptations are another key aspect of the job.

As part of my job I work very closely with other professions e.g. Physiotherapy, Speech & Language Therapy, Psychology etc. Team Meetings are a regular event whereby all the members of the team come together to discuss progress.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

Occupational Therapists are concerned with enabling the people we work with to be as independent as possible as well as improving their quality of life and that or their carers. A lot of the clients I work with have additional intellectual difficulties in addition to an physical disability.

The prescription of equipment is a key component of my job. This includes providing wheelchairs as well as other equipment such as hoists. Team meetings are another important part of the job. This allows all team members to come together to discuss any issues that might arise.

What are the main challenges?

Managing a busy caseload can be a challenge at times particularly when you are splitting your time between a number of locations. Also due to the current economic situation there is less money available to develop services and fund equipment.

What's cool?

Working with individuals with learning difficulties is very rewarding-this is my favourite part of the job.

What's not so cool?

Unfortunately not everyone understands the role of an Occupational Therapist and this can be frustrating at times. As OTs work in many different areas and with a diverse range of service users the role of an OT can be very different from one setting to another. This can lead to confusion for staff and service users as to when to contact the OT Dept.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

In school we had to choose our Leaving Cert subjects just before the Junior Cert. At this stage I had no idea what I wanted to do as a profession but I knew I wanted to go to College.

In order to keep my options open I chose a mix of subjects to include one language, one science subject and one business subject. In addition to the obligatory English, Irish & Maths I therefore studied French, Biology, Geography & Accounting. I chose these particular subjects as I had an interest in them at Junior Cert level.

I suppose Biology was the most relevant of my subjects when I started college as there was some overlap with Anatomy and Physiology. We also studied research and statistics in college which were Maths related.

What is your education to date?

I completed my Leaving cert. in 1999 and my first choice on the CEO form was Occupational Therapy. Luckily I received enough points for the course.

I studied Occupational Therapy in Trinity College Dublin. This was the only Occupational Therapy course in the Rep. of Ireland at the time. This was a four year course. The majority of the first two years was taken up with the academic and theory based modules. Third and forth year had many of the fieldwork education placements. These are placements of about 9 weeks each in various OT settings e.g. mental health, intellectual disability, community and hospitals. It is in these placements that you get to apply your theory and really learn about the work of an OT.

Since graduating in 2003 I have attended numerous courses. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is an important aspect of the job. You are constantly learning and developing your skills as a therapist.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

I found the fieldwork education placements the most beneficial part of the Occupational Therapy course. As part of the degree you must complete 1000 hours of placements that are arranged through the College. The 1000 hours must include a mix of mental health and physical rehab placements. 

This was a great opportunity to work alongside trained Occupational Therapists and to learn from them. It also lets you sample Occupational Therapy in a variety of settings with a mix of clients. This can help you decide which setting may be best suited to you.

For one of my placements I spent ten weeks working in a child and adolescent mental health setting. Up to this point I had never worked with children within an OT context. This placement was a real eye opener for me and had a strong influence on my career to date.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

The biggest reward from being an Occupational Therapist is making a difference in the life of the clients we work with and the people that care for them.

This might be achieved by supporting a families application for an extension to their home or by providing equipment that makes daily tasks easier to complete. A lot of the time it is the small rewards that make the job worthwhile. Like seeing a child with autism smile during a play session.

Having worked in St. Michael's House for a number of years now it is also exciting to see the service change and develop to meet the needs of it's service users.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

I think OTs tend to be creative thinkers and can think 'outside the box'. This is something that I like to think I am able to do. I also really enjoy interacting with people and that is a key aspect of my work.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Unlike some of the other health professions, Occupational Therapists tend to work from 9-5 Monday to Friday. This leaves both the evenings and weekends free to pursue other interests. OTs also get 25-27 annual leave days a year. These tend to get used up with holidays etc.

The caring professions aren't generally renowned as high income jobs. On qualifying from College Basic Grade OTs start on lower salary scales with salary increments each year. After working for 3 years as a Basic Grade, therapists are eligible to apply for Senior OT positions, which start on a higher salary scale.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

I would advise anyone interested in Occupational Therapy to read up on the profession or else try to meet a qualified Occupational Therapist and talk to them about their work.

The internet can be a great resource in getting information. Also information from the universities might indicate if this is a course that is suited to you. A lot of the course work relies on you being a self-directed learner. This makes the course different to other more mainstream/academic courses as the onus is on the student to complete a lot of work independently.

As this is a caring profession an interest in working with people is a must. You also need to be a good communicator as you will be working closely with clients, families and other staff on an ongoing basis.

Organisational skills are essential to enable you to manage a caseload.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

A caring nature and an interest in working with people is vital. Occupational Therapy is all about the needs of the individual. You must understand these needs and always have this as the focus of your work.

Good communication skills are necessary. Throughout the course of a day you will be in contact with clients, their carers and other health professionals. You need to be able to communicate effectively with all of these in order to provide a quality service.

Strong organisational skills are important as you need to manage your time to meet the needs of the clients and the service. This includes time management and prioritisation skills as well as working to a deadline.

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

Since graduating from College I have attended a number of courses to develop skills in specific areas. These have included courses on handwriting, posture & seating and sensory integration. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is vital for keeping your skills up to date as OT is a dynamic profession.

I hope to continue to attend professional courses to further develop my skills. In particular I would be interested in undergoing additional sensory integration training as this is an area of particular interest to me and it is relevant to my current caseload.

In the future there is the option of undertaking a Masters in Occupational Therapy or a Masters in Intellectual Disability. This is something I might be interested in doing in due course.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

For anyone interested in working with individuals with intellectual disabilities, experience of working in the front line (e.g. care staff) is useful as this will confirm that this client group is for you.

Experience working in other care settings e.g. nursing homes, day centres would also be of benefit. Experience of working with children may also prove useful e.g. child minding, teaching, organising clubs/groups.

Working as an Occupational Therapy Assistant will give lots of insight into the work of an OT. For some people it might be possible to shadow an Occupational Therapist for a day and see directly the work they do.

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