Home How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor

How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor

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Reviewed by Ken Weber, Program Director of Compensated Work Therapy at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA hospital

Nearly 120,000 rehabilitation counselors currently work in the U.S., and the number is increasing. If you enjoy helping others overcome obstacles so they can live their best lives, you might want to become part of this growing field.

What Is Rehabilitation Counseling?

Rehabilitation counseling is an area of counseling that focuses on improving mental health and quality of life for people with physical, emotional, or mental disabilities. The goal of rehabilitation counseling is to help people with such disabilities live as independently as possible.

A lot of times what rehabilitation counseling is about is empowering individuals to be independent and to make their own decisions in life.

—Ken Weber

What Does a Rehabilitation Counselor Do?

Rehabilitation counselors support people with disabilities to help them live as productively as possible. According to Ken Weber, a rehabilitation counselor with the VA, “A lot of times what we are presented with is a jigsaw puzzle that’s been taken apart or knocked apart by some tragic event in that person’s life that changed who they are, how they identify themselves, what they’re able to do. As rehab counselors, we pick up those pieces, and we put them back together.”

The methods you use and the services you provide will likely vary depending on your patient’s particular needs.

For example, for patients with physical disabilities, you may:

  • Provide counseling that helps them accept their disability or disorder
  • Help them find fulfilling jobs they are physically capable of performing
  • Improve their state of mind with individual or group therapy
  • Advocate for proper chronic pain treatment for affected patients

For patients with psychological disorders, such as mental illness or a brain injury, you will probably perform the following tasks:

  • Facilitate their development of healthy coping skills through individual or group therapy
  • Help their employer incorporate practices and understand laws designed to help those with mental illness succeed in the workplace
  • Refer them for additional medical care, such as to a psychiatrist for medication

The official duties for certified rehabilitation counselors are outlined in the Scope of Practice for the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. They include the following:

  • Assessment and appraisal: Determine what methods and treatments you will use for your patient’s particular needs.
  • Diagnosis and Treatment Planning: Provide diagnostic descriptions of mental, emotional, or behavioral conditions or disabilities and explore possible solutions. Whether you’re working with a child or an elderly person, developing appropriate treatment plans helps support positive outcomes.
  • Career/Vocational Counseling: Help your patients find job opportunities that match their abilities. This task specifically supports individuals of age to work.
  • Individual and Group Counseling Interventions: Provide therapy for individuals or groups of patients aimed at treating a particular diagnosis. Group counseling sessions are typically reserved for adult patients, while individual counseling supports those of any age.
  • Case Management, Referral, and Service Coordination: Interview patients so you can provide them with therapy and referrals to other providers. This ensures your patients get help with needs that are outside your scope of practice. Both children and adults can benefit from seamless service between their advocates and providers.
  • Program Evaluation and Research: Track your patients’ progress and determine how effective your treatment methods are. If you work on the patient side of things, studying them across the lifespan can help reveal new information on effective treatments.
  • Interventions to Remove Environmental, Employment, and Attitudinal Barriers: Identify any barriers to your patients’ success and remove the ones you can. Adult patients may benefit most from interventions focused on employment factors, while younger clients may need help with environmental and educational barriers.
  • Consultation Services Among Multiple Parties and Regulatory Systems: Arrange assistance for your patients in multiple facets of their life by working with groups that offer housing assistance, physical health appointments, etc. While these services may not directly benefit younger patients, they can support parents of children requiring services. This job responsibility also benefits adults in many different facets of life.
  • Job Analysis, Job Development, and Placement Services: Assist patients in finding and succeeding in their careers, including helping the patient get accommodations for their disability. Whether in college or nearing retirement, clients often need job support. According to Ken Weber, “I think we’re the only profession that specifically addresses how to help individuals with disabilities fit into the workplace and how to make a workplace more receptive to people with disabilities.”
  • Training on Rehabilitation Technology: Consult with patients of all ages about rehabilitative technologies and provide them with access as needed. Make sure to keep tabs on new technologies and inform patients who might benefit from using them.

In the video below, produced by the Commission on Rehabilitative Counselor Certification, experienced rehabilitative counselors explain the art of their job and some of their typical job duties.

Rehabilitation Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

Rehabilitation counselors earned a median pay of $35,950, or $17.28 per hour, in the U.S. in 2019. The number of jobs for rehabilitation counselors is predicted to grow by 10% between 2018 and 2028.

The states where rehabilitation counselors earned the most in 2019 were:

State Hourly Mean Wage (2019) Annual Mean Wage
New Jersey $31.51 $65,540
Rhode Island $28.71 $59,710
Colorado $25.19 $52,390
Washington, D.C. $25.13 $52,270
Vermont $24.29 $50,530

 

The states projected to have the highest growth rates include:

State Percent Growth (2018–2028)
Arizona 32%
Virginia 28%
Colorado 28%
Utah 26%
Arkansas 24%

Steps to Becoming a Rehabilitation Counselor

To become a licensed rehabilitation counselor, you have to complete the following steps:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or social work
  2. Earn a master’s degree in counseling
  3. Get your license
  4. Get certified
  5. Earn continuing education credits to remain certified/licensed

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming a rehabilitation counselor is to earn your bachelor’s degree in psychology or social work. Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years to complete. You’ll take classes like Introduction to Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and Research Methods. By the time you finish your degree, you should understand the origins of the field of psychology and its founders, be able to identify different mental illnesses, and carry out psychological research according to the scientific method.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree

After earning your bachelor’s degree, you must earn a master’s degree in counseling. Master’s programs typically take two years to complete. Degree programs must be approved by an accrediting body, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP’s requirements include at least 48-semester credits and 100 hours of supervised rehabilitation counseling practicum experience—40 hours of which must focus on direct care. Internship activities must include at least 600 hours of applied experience. Common classes include Foundations of Rehabilitation Counseling, Disability Management, and Appraisal and Assessment. Plan to complete a thesis prior to graduating.

Step 3: Get Your License

The majority of states require rehabilitation counselors to be licensed, specifically if they plan to provide counseling services. Those who want to focus solely on vocational rehabilitation may be able to skip this step.

Because every state sets its own requirements, you should check with your board. According to the American Counseling Association, common requirements for licensure include having a master’s degree, between 2,000 and 4,000 supervised clinical hours, and a passing score on an approved examination. The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification maintains a list of the state boards.

Step 4: Consider Pursuing Certification

Certification is not mandated by state or federal regulations, but some employers may prioritize—or even require—this step.

Becoming a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) allows you to specialize your knowledge, demonstrate competency, and take on leadership roles.

Step 5: Keep Learning with Continuing Education

Rehabilitation counseling is a dynamic, ever-evolving field that continues to make strides based on new research and evidence-based findings. Because of this, it’s important that you stay abreast of changes as they occur.

In states that require rehabilitation counselors to be licensed—or for employers that mandate certification—you may need to participate in continuing education (CE) to qualify for renewal. The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification outlines continuing education requirements while also providing a list of approved CE providers. You can also look for local and state-level vendors.

Rehabilitation Counseling Career Resources

Many resources exist to help you learn more about the field, understand educational and licensing requirements, get connected to others in the discipline, and find jobs that suit your passions and skillset. These organizations can support students, fledgling professionals, or industry veterans. A few resources are highlighted below.

  • The National Rehabilitation Association: This nonprofit membership group provides opportunities for collaborative practice and professional networking events, as well as access to the Journal of Rehabilitation and local chapters.
  • American Counseling Association: As a member of the ACA, you will receive access to continuing education opportunities, in-house publications, career support, an annual conference, and a helpful knowledge center.
  • American Rehabilitation Counseling Association: The ARCA provides 24/7 online peer networking, discounts on professional services and tools, an annual conference, awards, and a student task force.
  • Association of VA Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals: Joining AVAVRP allows you to take advantage of annual events, an industry newsletter, opportunities for building leadership skills, and advocacy.
  • International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals: If you want to expand your network beyond the U.S., you can get support from this association. They offer a membership directory, career development services (including mentoring and coaching), a Young Professionals Network, online and in-person training events, and several publications.