Culture and Occupational Therapy

August 6, 2021

Written by Esther Manoharan

Written By: Esther Manoharan | Occupational Therapy Assistant

Culture and Occupational Therapy:

Culture plays a crucial role in our lives; it includes the patterns of learned and shared beliefs and shapes the way we see the world. Sociologists recognise the importance of culture in shaping social relationships, determining our place in the world, and shaping our everyday actions and experiences in society.  In Australia, we are lucky to live in such a culturally diverse nation and to be able to experience the various cultures of so many social, ethnic and age groups interacting in our everyday lives. 

Having grown up in a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) home myself, I can understand how my own culture can affect the way that I interact with my family, friends, clients and co-workers. In occupational therapy, a person’s culture can influence and impact many occupations and therapy-related goals. A therapist needs to consider all the complex elements associated with cultures, such as cultural awareness and sensitivity to provide clients with the best support possible.  And for these complex elements to be integrated throughout the entire therapy process from evaluation to intervention to outcomes. 

My time in health promotion in Papua New Guinea was an eye-opening experience. The majority of the population were sceptical regarding health promotion, mainly from the strong beliefs rooted deep in the Papua New Guinean culture. Reflecting on this experience, I do understand that not too many people would be open to listening to strangers who have just arrived in their country. However, the Papua New Guineans were wanting to have a relationship with the team before allowing us to work together with them to achieve better health outcomes in the general population. Having this understanding of the religious and other cultural beliefs of the Papua New Guineans allowed the team I was a part of to connect with the people and understand their perspectives and experiences, an important part of occupational therapy.

Spending time with the local Papua New Guinean kids outside of the scheduled programs was one of the highlights of my trip.

Culture also influences the different ways a person performs occupations. For example, in my own South East Asian heritage, it is culturally acceptable to eat meals with your hands. It is seen as a symbol of respect towards the person who made the meal and is a reflection of a community’s hospitality and cultural identity. However, having grown up in Western culture the notion of eating with one’s hands is not seen in the same way for an adult. I would be on the receiving end of some judgemental stares for using my hands to eat a meal when the cultural norm is to eat with cutlery. It is equally important to understand a person’s cultural traditions when analysing a person’s occupations as an OT.

Here are some suggestions on how to be culturally aware and sensitive in everyday life:

  1. Thinking beyond race and ethnicity. A person’s culture is shaped by more than just the colour of their skin or the way that they dress. It’s shaped by their unique life experiences and traditions, which may or may not be seen to the naked eye. Listen out for information about self-perception. People may identify with a particular aspect of their diversity at different times
  2. Learn by asking. Asking genuine questions can make people feel respected and appreciated, so don’t be afraid to ask questions! Open-ended questions are a good way to ensure that you are well informed regarding culture from your time together. You can also Initiate an open conversation by sharing a personal story or experience.
  3. Pay attention to non-verbal behaviours. Meanings can be different behind the same body language can vary depending on the cultural norms. Be observant of how your body language can be perceived by those around you.


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