Rehabilitation Counseling | Program Guide

When people experience significant illness or disability, they can struggle to reintegrate back into everyday life. Some experience difficulty returning to their job or may have psychological effects from trauma. Rehabilitation counselors help people in these situations cope with these changes.

This page highlights the scope of practice for these professionals, what to expect in rehabilitation counselor degrees, and how to choose the right program.

What is Rehabilitation Counseling?

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Before the 1900s, organizations like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army performed many of the same functions as today's rehabilitation counselors; however, rehabilitation counseling did not become an individual career until after the first world war. Modern medicine allowed many soldiers to survive injuries that would have been fatal in past wars, but some survivors had disabilities that kept them from working in specific jobs, giving rise to the field of vocational counseling. In the years since, professionals recognized people with illnesses and disabilities needed more than vocational counseling. The career eventually became rehabilitation counseling, which considers each client's entire well being, not just the ability to find employment.

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Government agencies, schools, and healthcare organizations hire rehabilitation counselors to help clients with a wide range of disabilities and illnesses. Counselors identify the emotional, social, and vocational effects of each client's condition. Then the professionals connect clients with the appropriate resources and help clients develop coping mechanisms. For example, a counselor may find a wheelchair or group home for a client in need of one. During this process, rehabilitation counselors identify the client's strengths and advocates for the individual's rights. Some rehabilitation counselors specialize in working with specific populations, such as veterans.

Differences Between a Rehabilitation Counseling Program and a General Counseling or Therapy Program

Counseling programs of all kinds share some basic psychology courses, including human development and counseling practices. Most counseling programs also cover things like professional ethics and legal issues in helping professions. While there are some core courses across counseling specialties, curricula differ based on what type of counseling learners want to practice.

For example, future substance abuse counselors take courses in addiction treatment and behavior, while marriage and family therapy programs teach about relationship dynamics. Behavioral disorder counseling programs often include classes in abnormal psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy. Rehabilitation counseling is another specialized area within counseling, and students must take courses to prepare them for this career.

Rehabilitation counseling degree programs educate students on different types of disabilities, the challenges that clients face, and available resources. As such, students may take courses from both the schools of counseling and social work. Degree candidates also learn about different types of counseling techniques for clients with disabilities.

Sample Coursework

Many rehabilitation counseling programs are general counseling degree programs with specializations in rehabilitation counseling. In these programs, all counseling students complete the core curricula. This core often includes classes such as counseling theories, ethics in counseling, and multiculturalism. These courses lay a foundation for all of the specializations, including rehabilitation counseling degrees.

Students then take specialization classes or electives depending on their chosen concentrations. Learners who want to work as rehabilitation counselors take courses in psychological, social, and vocational rehabilitation. The chart below includes some of the core and specialization courses the rehabilitation counseling students take, but curricula vary between schools.

General Counseling or Therapy Program

  • Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories
  • Techniques in Counseling
  • Ethics in Counseling
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Evaluation and Assessment
  • Research and Statistics
  • Group Counseling

Rehabilitation Counseling Program

  • Psychiatric Rehabilitation
  • Multiculturalism and Disabilities
  • Employment Models
  • Families, Disability, and Illness
  • Rehabilitation Case Management Practices

What Can You Do With a Rehabilitation Counseling Degree?

The typical day of a rehabilitation counselor may vary depending on the employer, the role, and what types of clients the professional sees. For example, rehabilitation counselors in group homes may meet with each client individually to go over their needs or lead group sessions that help the group bond. Hospital-based counselors may visit patient rooms to talk about what they need and connect them with appropriate resources.

Rehabilitation counselors may help clients make calls and file paperwork to get the help they need. They may also find adaptive technologies and other tools to help clients succeed. Rehabilitation counselors may visit clients in their homes or in the professional's office.

What Do Rehabilitation Counselors Help With?

Rehabilitation counselors help people with disabilities and illnesses through significant transitions in their lives. For example, some rehabilitation counselors work with people with developmental disabilities as they transition into independent living. Others help veterans move into civilian life. Some of these professionals work with people who adjust after life-changing injuries, such as paralysis after an accident.

Where Do Rehabilitation Counselors Work?

Rehabilitation counselors work in many of the same settings as general counselors, as well as a few other contexts. They may find employment in any of the following settings:

  • Community and vocational rehabilitation agencies
  • Individual and family services agencies
  • Residential care facilities
  • Hospitals and medical centers

How Much Do Rehabilitation Counselors Make?

Rehabilitation counselors can earn different salaries depending on their education levels, experience, and location. The chart below shows how wages changed based on experience.

Explore more about rehabilitation counselors here

Rehabilitation Counseling Degree Programs

Rehabilitation counseling degrees lead to different levels of certification and licensure. Candidates with more education can fill higher-level positions. While most schools only offer rehabilitation counseling degrees at the graduate level, some offer undergraduate programs as well. General counseling programs can serve as great options for learners who want to go into graduate rehabilitation counseling programs.

Online Rehabilitation Counseling Degree Programs

Online rehabilitation counseling degrees give candidates the freedom to earn a degree while working. This flexibility is especially helpful for students who work in the field and want to obtain higher education to advance their careers. For example, rehabilitation technicians can continue to build their resumes while earning a master's degree. Rehabilitation counselors can also use online learning to earn a doctoral degree.

Online programs also give students the freedom to attend the best plans for their needs, regardless of location. While most graduate programs require students to complete practicums in person, many schools allow them to achieve those requirements in their local communities.

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Rehabilitation Counseling Program

While rehabilitation counseling degrees often cover similar subjects, they each offer different benefits. For example, some require in-person meetings while others offer entirely asynchronous courses. It's essential for prospective students to thoroughly research each program they consider to choose the best options for them.


Perhaps the most critical factor in choosing a rehabilitation counseling degree is ensuring it comes from an appropriately accredited school. Colleges and universities earn institutional accreditation if the appropriate third-party agencies determine they meet education standards. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee the accrediting agencies.

Colleges and universities with institutional accreditation may also earn programmatic accreditation. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) oversees these credentials for rehabilitation counseling degrees. Students should choose programs with institutional and CACREP accreditation, as these are most likely to allow them to earn state licenses.


Prospective students should consider the cost of each program before deciding on a school. Often, public universities in their own states offer the lowest tuition rates; however, some schools offer online learners the same tuition rate regardless of residency. Generally, public schools cost less than private universities.

On-Campus vs. Online

While many schools' online rehabilitation counseling degree programs have flexibility and convenience, they are not the right choice for every student. Degree candidates should consider their personal learning styles and scheduling needs before deciding on a program. Students who work or care for young children often find that the freedom of online learning works best for them.

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