Sixty-one million people in the United States live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This translates to around 26% of the population. While individuals with disabilities cope with mobility and cognition issues, they also face unique societal barriers that create additional challenges in their daily lives.
Rehabilitation counselors are in a unique position to help individuals overcome these challenges. Whether helping military veterans overcome physical trauma or older adults adjust to a disability resulting from disease, the work of rehabilitation counselors can provide the support and advocacy needed to improve the well-being of people with disabilities, allowing them to live full and healthy lives.
What is a rehabilitation counselor? These counselors help people with disabilities manage challenges to working and living independently. Individuals inspired by the opportunity to empower people with disabilities can benefit from learning more about what rehabilitation counselors do, what it takes to become one, what rehabilitation counselors earn and what the job market looks like for them.
What Is Rehabilitation Counseling?
Rehabilitation counseling is a specific branch of counseling devoted to advocating for and supporting disabled individuals. The field’s roots trace back to 1918, when federal legislators created a program to rehabilitate disabled World War I veterans. In the following decades, the practice evolved to become a public health service that supports individuals with disabilities both seen and unseen.
A wide range of disabled groups can be positively impacted through rehabilitation counseling. These can include students, military veterans, older people who develop disabilities later in life and people who develop disabilities through a traumatic event. Regardless of the group, the goal behind rehabilitation counseling is to help these individuals properly integrate into society.
What Does a Rehabilitation Counselor Do?
Rehabilitation counselors offer guidance, direction and support to individuals with developmental, emotional, physical and mental disabilities to help them live more independent, fulfilling lives. They work with people of different ages and from different circumstances. For example, they may support younger people with developmental delays to transition from school to work, or they may assist an adult recovering from an auto accident in coping with their injuries.
Whatever the case, an underlying belief in each person’s dignity and worth guides rehabilitation counselors as they help people with disabilities integrate into their communities. By coaching and teaching their clients to set and achieve goals around daily living skills, such as personal hygiene and food preparation, as well as school, work and social activities, rehabilitation counselors empower people with disabilities to access the various aspects of life they want to participate in.
Additionally, rehabilitation counselors work with their clients to identify the barriers preventing them from achieving their goals or from living more productive and comfortable lives. They also identify strategies for addressing those barriers. For instance, a rehabilitation counselor may help people with disabilities find the transportation services they need to get to a job. They can teach their clients about assistive technologies that help them more easily navigate their kitchens, accomplish tasks at their jobs or take notes in school.
In addition to mental health counseling, rehabilitation counselors offer various types of services for people with disabilities.
Rehabilitation counselors start by evaluating their clients’ needs, abilities and interests. As an example, rehabilitation counselors may look into what tools or resources a client uses to complete daily tasks, such as dressing and bathing, or if they have the support needed to open a bank account, cash a check or manage their bills. Additionally, the counselor may determine what activities the person enjoys and whether they have easy access to them.
Assessment also involves an examination of the person’s disabilities, as well as any behavioral disorders or other conditions present. With this information in hand, rehabilitation counselors can determine the best ways to help their clients cope, change or adapt to their circumstances. It also allows them to determine what resources and support can improve their clients’ lives.
Rehabilitation counselors devise treatment plans that help their clients build their strengths and manage their limitations. Treatment plans include solutions that address the barriers making the lives of people with disabilities unnecessarily difficult or isolated. They also provide strategies for helping clients reach their social, educational and employment goals.
For instance, treatment plans may identify community agencies that can provide on-site job coaching or wheelchairs and other assistance that can improve a client’s autonomy and mobility. Treatment plans may also identify community groups and activities that can help a client maintain healthy social connections, as well as services that ensure they have access to medical care.
Some people with disabilities face considerable obstacles when it comes to getting and keeping a job. These may include limited experience in finding or interviewing for a job, a lack of transportation or the need for special accommodations in the workplace. To ensure people with disabilities have the opportunity to work, rehabilitation counselors provide vocational counseling.
Vocational counseling often involves connecting clients to employment and job training services, coaching clients through the application process and conducting mock interviews.
In addition to these responsibilities, disability advocacy, education and outreach make up an important part of the rehabilitation counseling profession.
How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor
Because rehabilitation counseling is a profession with a high degree of responsibility, becoming a rehabilitation counselor requires the completion of several steps.
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
To work in rehabilitation counseling, a person must hold at least a bachelor’s degree. This can be a degree in a subject directly related to rehabilitation, such as rehabilitation services or disability studies. It can also be in a related field, such as sociology or psychology. Earning the degree may lead to entry-level roles in the field in some states; however, these positions would not grant the individual the ability to diagnose patients.
Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree
The majority of rehabilitation counselors hold a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field. In fact, a master’s degree is required by many employers and allows rehabilitation counselors to provide a comprehensive range of services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
A graduate program, such as a Master of Arts in Counseling program, cultivates expertise in mental health and the various aspects of physical, emotional, developmental and mental disabilities. An advanced degree can prepare graduates to take on the many responsibilities of a rehabilitation counselor. Ideally, the program should be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), as such programs can offer opportunities to gain supervised clinical experience that could be used toward future licensure.
Step Three: Obtain Licensure
States have varying requirements regarding licensure. However, rehabilitation counselors who want to provide counseling along with other rehabilitation services, such as job placement, need to obtain a license from the state where they practice.
Typically, this involves graduating from a master’s degree program, passing a state-authorized exam and completing between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical practice. Additionally, rehabilitation counselors can enhance their credentials by earning certifications such as certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC) and certified vocational evaluation specialist (CVE) from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. Certification may also increase an individual’s job opportunities, as some employers may require certification for rehabilitation counselor jobs.
Rehabilitation Counselor Salary and Job Growth
The median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors in May 2021was $38,560, according to the BLS, with the top 10% of earners making more than $65,880 a year. The BLS projects the number of positions in the field to increase by 10% between 2020 and 2030, which is higher than the 8% average job growth projected for all professions.
As is true for other careers with a master’s in counseling, rehabilitation counselors practice in many work environments. These work environments include:
- State vocational rehabilitation agencies
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
- Behavioral health agencies
- Private rehabilitation hospitals
While the environment may influence the precise duties of a rehabilitation counselor, all rehabilitation counselors pursue the goal of providing support to their clients to help them improve their well-being.
Make a Difference in the Lives of Others
Individuals researching what a rehabilitation counselor is understand how critical the position is in the empowerment of people with disabilities. By equipping them with the tools and resources they need for consistent self-sufficiency, rehabilitation counselors can lead their clients toward a full life that enhances their well-being.
The University of North Dakota’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program and its Rehabilitation Counseling track can help prepare you to pursue this role and make a difference in the lives of others. Our program is designed to cultivate the knowledge and skills counselors need to help people with disabilities become more independent and fulfilled. Learn how we can get you ready to make an impact.