How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor
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.
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:
For patients with psychological disorders, such as mental illness or a brain injury, you will probably perform the following tasks:
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:
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|
The states projected to have the highest growth rates include:
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Steps to Becoming a Rehabilitation Counselor
To become a licensed rehabilitation counselor, you have to complete the following steps:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or social work
- Earn a master’s degree in counseling
- Get your license
- Get certified
- 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.
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Puerto Rico
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia