How Do You Get Into Rehabilitation Counseling?

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A rehabilitation counselor speaks with clients about employment opportunities.

Disabilities are generally classified as impacting six areas: cognition, mobility, vision, hearing, self-care and independent living. According to a fact sheet produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four adults in the U.S. have a disability impacting day-to-day life. Rehabilitation counselors work directly with some of these 61 million people.

Anyone who has an interest in working with clients, advocating for people with disabilities and using their career to help others thrive might consider working in the rewarding field of rehabilitation counseling.

What Is Rehabilitation Counseling?

Rehabilitation counselors are mental health professionals who help clients with disabilities develop skills and solutions enabling them to thrive in their personal and professional lives.

As defined by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), “Rehabilitation counseling is a systematic process that assists persons with physical, mental, developmental, cognitive and emotional disabilities to achieve their personal, career and independent living goals in the most integrated setting possible through the application of the counseling process. The counseling process involves communication, goal setting, and beneficial growth or change through self-advocacy, psychological, vocational, social and behavioral interventions.”

This role involves closely working with people with disabilities, helping them manage the impacts of their disabilities, lead independent lives and secure purposeful employment. A professional rehabilitation counselor might choose to work with a specific population such as students, veterans or senior citizens. One could also specialize as a vocational rehabilitation counselor and focus primarily on helping their clients prepare for and find employment.

A rehabilitation counselor leads a client consultation.What Does a Rehabilitation Counselor Do?

Rehabilitation counselors may conduct individual or group counseling services using a variety of techniques. Through understanding their clients’ health, abilities, interests, skills and experiences, a counselor’s objective is to “help clients develop their strengths and adjust to their limitations,” the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains. According to the CRCC’s Scope of Practice Statement, rehabilitation counselors support clients by “facilitating adjustments to the medical and psychosocial impact of disability.”

In performing their duties, rehabilitation counselors conduct a variety of activities. They assess clients’ health and abilities, issue disability diagnoses and develop treatment plans based on clients’ needs. Often, these treatment plans are created in consultation with other health care providers and mental health counselors for the most holistic approach.

To support clients in securing employment and leading independent lives, rehabilitation counselors help their clients access a variety of tools and resources — from rehabilitation education and health care services to rehabilitation technologies and wheelchairs. They will also offer vocational training or match clients with third-party career preparation or job placement programs.

Beyond direct client work, rehabilitation counselors serve as consultants and advocates. They may educate employers and community leaders about what it means to live and work with a disability. While advocating, rehabilitation counselors may emphasize the skills, abilities and contributions individuals with disabilities can offer while helping employers better understand how to best support employees with disabilities. Additionally, counselors will work to break down disability-related cultural and environmental barriers.

How Much Does a Rehabilitation Counselor Make?

According to information published by the BLS, the median rehabilitation counseling salary in May 2019 was $35,950. The top 10% of earners made $63,790 or higher, and those working in state government rehabilitation counseling jobs earned a median annual wage of $51,260. However, in October 2020, PayScale reported higher average earnings of $45,928. Actual salary potential will vary by employer, location and experience level.

Although salary expectations in rehabilitation counseling average lower than some other counseling, social work and social services occupations, for many professionals, the level of compensation does not influence their dedication to the field and commitment to their clients.

What Is the Job Outlook for Rehabilitation Counseling?

In 2020, the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) identifies rehabilitation counseling as a “Bright Outlook” career. This means that the field is experiencing faster-than-average growth and aspiring counselors can expect to see an increase in the number of available job opportunities.

Between 2018 and 2028, the BLS forecasts 10% growth — twice as much as the average across all occupations. This is expected to result in the creation of an additional 11,800 rehabilitation counseling jobs by the end of the decade.

How Do You Become a Rehabilitation Counselor?

For a career in rehabilitation counseling, a job candidate should possess the right combination of education, professional licensure and work experience.

Education for Future Rehabilitation Counselors

According to the BLS, the rehabilitation counselor role usually requires a master’s degree, such as a master of science or master of arts in counseling or a related field. This means before considering master’s degree programs, a future rehabilitation counselor should earn a bachelor’s degree in a field such as counseling, psychology or social work.

With a bachelor’s degree, an aspiring rehabilitation counselor can take the next step and earn a master’s degree in counseling. An online Master of Arts in Counseling with a specialty in clinical mental health counseling from Bradley University offers a flexible learning environment and rigorous coursework, preparing students for what they’ll encounter in a rehabilitation counseling career.

Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling curriculum features a broad range of core courses and clinical mental health counseling specialty courses. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Theories and Techniques of Counseling: Students deepen their understanding of the major theories of counseling and develop a working knowledge of how techniques and approaches can be applied.
  • Diagnosis and Treatment of Mental Health Disorders: This course covers topics such as psychopathology, psychodiagnostics and treatment for mental disorders. Students also become familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
  • Neurocounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior: The brain, its functions and its relevance to mental health counseling are the focus of this neurocounseling course.
  • Career and Life Planning Across the Life Span: This practical course exposes students to counseling approaches necessary when offering career guidance to clients from all backgrounds and at all stages of professional life.
  • Counseling: Ethics and the Law: Students undertake an advanced study of the ethical and legal aspects of the counseling profession and a close study of the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics.
  • Principles of Group Counseling: The theory, methods and dynamics of group counseling are the focus of this course, in which students practice leadership and group facilitation skills.
  • Loss and Grief Counseling: Students explore the ways in which grief, loss and mourning manifest themselves in people’s lives and how they can help clients overcome these challenges.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: This course exposes students to counseling interventions and techniques suitable for substance abuse treatment and prevention.
  • Counseling Diverse Populations: Students learn about models of diversity and counseling philosophies directly supporting future client work.

In addition to these courses and others, students enrolled in Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program participate in a supervised practicum and independent internship experiences to gain exposure to their desired career path in real-world professional settings. These program components afford students wishing to find employment in rehabilitation counseling the opportunity to gain firsthand experience.

Rehabilitation Counseling Licensure Requirements

Licensure requirements vary from state to state and may differ based on the specific job duties. Since rehabilitation counseling involves a wide range of job responsibilities, not all professionals in the field will need to hold a certification. For instance, a vocational rehabilitation counselor providing job search support may not need a license where they practice. However, someone who provides counseling services and issues diagnoses will need to be a licensed professional counselor.

If a certification is required or desired, it can be obtained through a state licensing board. For instance, to pass the CRCC’s Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) licensure program in a given state, candidates must possess sufficient educational credentials and supervised clinical experience to sit for the CRC examination.

Some employers will require licensure while others will consider it a significant advantage when reviewing job applications. A certification in rehabilitation counseling demonstrates a serious commitment to the profession, an adherence to industry standards and ethical practices and a desire to remain active in the counseling field. Part of being an active certified rehabilitation counselor is participating in continuing education activities throughout one’s counseling career.

Work Experience in Rehabilitation Counseling

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has noted an aspiring rehabilitation counselor can find entry-level employment as a rehabilitation counselor aide. This can be a beneficial experience for professionals with a bachelor’s degree while they work toward completing a master’s degree program.

Qualified professionals can find employment in settings such as hospitals, social service offices, physical therapy clinics, government agencies, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, schools and unemployment offices. Entrepreneurial professionals may choose to open a private rehabilitation counseling practice once they have gained sufficient experience.

Important Skills and Qualities for Rehabilitation Counselors

Even though work experience and education are critical to success in rehabilitation counseling, it also takes someone who is naturally well-suited to the job. Certain personal characteristics and qualities — like a compassionate disposition and an authentic desire to work with people — are essential to success in this type of career. Many important soft skills and qualities can be learned, but some may come naturally and might suggest a disposition for a counseling career.

The BLS and O*NET identifies the following as critical skills for success in rehabilitation counseling:

  • Interpersonal skills and relationship-building abilities to promote successful interactions and long-term relationships with clients, employers, family members, community leaders and other mental health counselors or health care providers
  • Strong written and verbal communication skillsfor successful interactions with clients and other parties
  • Critical thinking abilities to help clients creatively solve problems
  • Active listening skills to understand client needs and concerns
  • Compassion and patienceto best serve clients who face difficult challenges that don’t necessarily have quick or easy solutions

Pursue Your Passion at Bradley University

If you are passionate about helping others and eager to pursue a career in rehabilitation counseling, take the next step by enrolling in Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program with a specialty in clinical mental health counseling. For more online program guides or other information, contact an enrollment counselor at Bradley University.

Recommended Readings:
Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Clinical Mental Health Counseling Curriculum
2020 Super Brain Summit

BLS — Rehabilitation Counselors
CDC — Disability Impacts All of Us
CRCC — Rehabilitation Counseling Scope of Practice
O*NET — Summary Report for Rehabilitation Counselors
PayScale — Average Rehabilitation Counselor Salary