What Is a Rehabilitation Counselor?

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A smiling person holding a notebook and wearing business attire has a conversation with a person who is in a wheelchair and is talking animatedly.Sixty-one million people in the United States live with a disability that can affect everything from their mobility to their cognition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether helping military veterans overcome physical trauma or older adults adjust to a disability resulting from disease, rehabilitation counselors play an invaluable role in promoting and supporting the well-being of people with disabilities.

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 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.

Treatment Plans

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.

Vocational Training

Some people with disabilities face considerable obstacles when it comes to getting and keeping a job. They 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

Becoming a rehabilitation counselor takes education and licensing.

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

To work in rehabilitation counseling, a person must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation and disability studies or a related field. This level of education can lead to some rehabilitation counseling job opportunities; however, such jobs allow a person to deliver certain limited services only.

Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most employers require rehabilitation counselors to have an advanced degree. The majority of rehabilitation counselors hold a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a similar field. A graduate program cultivates expertise in mental health and the various aspects of physical and mental disabilities and delivers training in the implementation of effective treatment plans. It can prepare graduates in a comprehensive way to take on the responsibilities of a rehabilitation counselor.

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 experience. 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.

Rehabilitation Counselor Work Environments, Salary and Prospects for Job Growth

Rehabilitation counselors practice in many work environments, including:

  • State vocational rehabilitation agencies
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Behavioral health agencies
  • Private rehabilitation hospitals

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors in May 2020 was $37,530. However, the top 10% of earners made more than $66,180 a year. The demand for rehabilitation counselors is growing much faster than average, as the BLS projects the number of positions in the field to increase by 10% between 2019 and 2029.

Learn More About a Career as a Rehabilitation Counselor

Those asking themselves the question “What is a rehabilitation counselor?” understand how critical the position is in the empowerment of people with disabilities. Additionally, they should realize that rehabilitation counselors’ meaningful work not only makes a real difference in the lives of others but also offers great rewards and a fulfilling career.

Discover how the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program, which offers a Rehabilitation Counseling track, can cultivate the skills counselors need to help people with disabilities become more independent and fulfilled.


Recommended Readings

Webinar: Online Graduate Counseling Programs Overview


Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, Rehabilitation Counselor Scope of Practice

Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, What Is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor?

Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, What Is a Certified Vocational Evaluation Specialist?

Counseling Today, “Celebrating the Role of Rehabilitation Counseling”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Persons With a Disability: Barriers to Employment and Other Labor-Related Issues News Release”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rehabilitation Counselors

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Disability Impacts All of Us

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VR&E Support-and-Services Tracks