What is Rehabilitation Counseling?

Rehabilitation counselors work with people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities. These counselors help clients manage or overcome the effects of their disabilities so they can find employment and live more independently. Counselors help their clients make use of both personal and environmental resources.

Rehabilitation counseling became a distinct profession in the 1920s, when federal and state governments began funding counseling programs and imposing education and training requirements for rehab counselors, which included requiring a master's degree.

Today, graduate programs shape the profession, providing students with the knowledge and skills they need to work with physically or mentally disabled people. The original scope of rehabilitation counselors has expanded in recent years, allowing professionals to branch out into business, private practice, hospitals, or insurance companies.

Rehabilitation counselors place disability rights at the foundation of their practice. Core tenets include inclusion, opportunity, independence, empowerment, rehabilitation, and quality of life. Counselors work to ensure their clients participate in and shape every part of the process so that their individual needs are met.

How Does Rehabilitation Counseling Work?

Rehabilitation counselors aim to help their clients achieve independence; physical, emotional, and mental well-being; and economic stability. However, the day-to-day goals for individual clients can vary, as can daily tasks for rehabilitation counselors.

Counselors must:

  • Provide counseling sessions
  • Evaluate abilities, interests, skills, health, and education
  • Develop treatment plans with other medical professionals
  • Arrange for medical care, career training, or other services for clients
  • Educate employers
  • Locate resources, such as computer programs, wheelchairs, and transportation services
  • Maintain clear records

These professionals work in a number of different settings, depending on the type of clientele they serve and the kind of practice they wish to run. Rehabilitation counselors commonly serve in private practices and larger rehabilitation counseling centers. These options allow counselors flexibility with clientele. Counselors in private practice can also set their own hours and directly manage their caseloads.

Other industries for rehabilitation counselors include:

  • Individual and family services
  • Vocational services
  • State governments
  • Colleges, universities, professional schools, and junior colleges
  • Hospitals
  • Local governments
  • Residential care facilities
  • Community food and housing, emergency, and other relief services
  • Insurance carriers
  • Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities
  • Elementary and high schools

With new clients, rehabilitation counselors must first perform assessment interviews. These interviews allow the counselor to understand the client's abilities and issues, evaluate their school and medical reports, and confer with other healthcare professionals.

Once the assessment is complete, counselors create an individualized plan to meet the client's personal goals. Counselors meet with their clients in individual or group settings to help them work through issues and build helpful skills.

Issues Addressed by Rehabilitation Counselors

Rehabilitation counselors work with clients with many types of disabilities, including physical and mobility issues, mental illness, brain injuries, chronic diseases, substance abuse or addiction, sensory impairments like deafness or blindness, or communication and language disorders.

Some clients struggle with more than one issue, such as a physical disability and a mental illness. Clients are also impacted by environmental and emotional stressors, which can lead to larger problems if left unaddressed. Counselors can specialize in a particular area or can provide more general services.

Physical ailments can severely restrict a client's mobility and access, forcing them to depend on others for daily tasks

All of these issues and disabilities can have drastic negative impacts if managed incorrectly. Physical ailments can severely restrict a client's mobility and access, forcing them to depend on others for daily tasks. Providing access to wheelchairs, transportation, guide animals, or other services could allow clients with physical disabilities to regain their independence.

Another common example is clients with mental disorders. In the U.S., 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Left untreated, depression is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. Furthermore, 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.

Counselors work with many different types of people, including:

  • Children and teens
  • Students enrolled in elementary, high school, or postsecondary education
  • Veterans
  • Victims of substance abuse
  • Hospital patients
  • The elderly
  • People with disabilities

Each of these groups requires personalized professional care. Rehabilitation counselors must take special care to fully evaluate all their patients to appropriately assess and determine the individual needs of their clients.

Benefits of Rehabilitation Counseling

Rehabilitation Counseling Techniques

Each client receives a unique treatment plan, depending on their disability or special needs. Rehabilitation counselors must first assess their clients to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. After consulting with other medical professionals, counselors can design an effective plan for their client.

Clients with physical disabilities may require treatment plans with physical therapy, medication, or other medical procedures. Alternatively, clients with mental illness may need a strict regimen of medication combined with therapy sessions. Some clients, like veterans with severe PTSD, may need help reintegrating into society and require career services.

You might be wondering, "What are the different types of rehabilitation counseling?" There are many theories and techniques for counselors to draw on, including:


Psychoanalytic Theory

Originally developed by Sigmund Freud, this theory attributes human action to unconscious forces. Therapy skills for psychoanalytic theory include free association, dream analysis, resistance analysis, and transference analysis. Ascribers to this theory believe that most personality development occurs in childhood. Counselors explore childhood events and traumas to create a new sense of self-awareness in their clients.

Person-Centered Theory

This theory operates on the assumption that everyone can achieve their full potential. Counselors focus on self-actualization, empathy, positive reinforcement, and self-regard. This theory is best suited to individual clients. The client-therapist relationship is extremely important in person-centered therapy because the positive interactions in a counseling session are the first building blocks of a larger program of self-care.

Cognitive Behavioral Theory

This is a practical approach that states human problems stem from faulty patterns of thinking. Counselors challenge their clients about automatic thinking or negative thought patterns, provoking self-actualization. Clients with PTSD, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, phobias, depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia can all benefit from this kind of therapy.

Counselors also connect clients with helpful services, such as physical therapy, transportation services, in-home nurses or other care professionals, service animals, or career experts.

How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor

Counselors must have a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field. Some employers may hire workers with a bachelor's degree in rehabilitation and disability, but these employees cannot provide the full range of services that a master's degree-holder can. Most graduate programs typically include an internship or supervised practicum to help students gain practical experience.

After earning their degrees, counselors must become licensed subject to the licensing requirements of their individual states, especially if they plan to provide counseling services. Rehabilitation counselors entering other fields, such as vocational assistance, may not need a license to practice.

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