How to Become a Certified Rehab Counselor

Overview

By Erika Price, PhD
Client listens to the advice of her rehab counselor

Certified rehabilitation counselors, or CRCs, help people with disabilities live full and independent lives and accomplish their personal goals. Whether clients hope to return to a much-loved job following an injury, or move into an apartment after years of living with less independence, CRCs equip their clients with the skills and strategies needed to succeed.

Beyond providing direct, one-on-one assistance to disabled people, CRC professionals also play an important role in raising public awareness about disability issues, making the world more accessible, and achieving social justice for this underserved population.

Disabled people are the largest minority in the world. And every disability is a unique combination of visible and invisible impairments, unique costs, social discrimination, and pain. Because their clients’ needs are so diverse, CRCs are ensured a challenging, but immensely rewarding working environment with a massive social impact.

Disability Types and CRC Work

Rehabilitation counselors work with people with a wide range of disabilities, including:

  • Mobility impairment
  • Degenerative disease
  • Mental illness
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Chronic disease (e.g. Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic pain disorder)
  • Addiction and substance abuse disorders
  • Sensory impairments (blindness, deafness, pain insensitivity)
  • Language and communication disorders (mutism, austim, etc.)
  • Coordination impairment
  • Mental or cognitive disability

CRCs understand the social, emotional and occupational barriers their clients face, and see their clients as more than their disorders. In order to be an effective counselor, a CRC must be acutely aware of the medical, as well as social and systemic, aspects of disability. Disability is not just a physical or mental limitation or difference, of course; it is a lack of social accessibility, and therefore interacts uniquely with each particular client’s social status and culture.

The Work of a CRC

To help people with disabilities explore their needs, manage their symptoms, and live their lives, CRCs conduct personal and group counseling sessions and help clients to locate peers as well as external resources. Assessments are also used to create a clearer picture of clients’ abilities and interests, and to assist in the client’s medical profile and applications for disability services.

Through supportive therapy, counselors help people to deal with feelings of anger, depression, isolation, and helplessness, helping clients to develop the resilience they need in order to move forward. Most vitally, a CRC serves as an advocate for their clients, helping them to navigate a Byzantine and complex bureaucratic system, ensuring they receive the medical care, accommodations, and financial supports they deserve.

Helping Clients Achieve Their Goals

One-on-one, a certified rehabilitation counselor must perform a needs assessment with his or her client. This will typically take the form of structured, yet open-ended interview, wherein the client can share negative experiences, barriers, and overall goals that are being impeded upon. Once a goal has been identified, the client and counselor work together to develop the necessary strategies. This might involve role-playing, learning new skills, job modification or engaging in assistive technology.

As needed, the counselor connects the client with helpful organizations and community resources, and may help locate government or legal assistance. Rehab counselors also work with employers to help them accommodate the on-the-job needs of people with disabilities, and to ensure that employers are not discriminating against disabled employees. Social and systematic discrimination remains an ongoing problem for many disabled people, particularly those with invisible disabilities.

Because disability is a complex condition, CRCs generally practice within a team of physicians, nurses, social workers and psychologists, in order to manage every client’s unique combination of needs. These professionals work together to develop an individualized treatment plan and coordinate client care. An ability to communicate across disciplines is therefore a crucial skill.

Rehabilitation counselors take great satisfaction in the successes of the people they serve. Whether helping a senior citizen to age and maintain independence, or assisting a wounded veteran in rejoining the workforce, CRCs devote a great deal of time and empathy to the assistance of their clients, and reap massive emotional rewards.

Salary and Job Outlook

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The median annual salary for rehabilitation counselors is $34,380, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eighty percent of rehab counselors earn between $21,200 and $59,810. Those working for hourly pay have an average income of $18.22 per hour. Benefits vary, but those who work in government or hospital settings are typically provided high quality health insurance and retirement plans.

Rehabilitation counselors working for state and local government generally command higher pay than those employed by vocational rehabilitation services and nursing homes. Earnings increase with experience and education.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of rehabilitation counselors is expected to increase by 20% between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than the average rate of growth for jobs in the United States.

The aging of the American population is the major force driving demand for qualified CRCs. Because older people are more likely to experience disability, there will be a need for counselors to work with those living with the effects of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, muscle degeneration, and orthopedic problems. Rehabilitation counselors also play an important role in helping the elderly to remain in their homes, which improves quality of life and eases the financial burden on the health care system.

Other populations that require ongoing rehabilitation services include the many wounded veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The growing incidence of autism spectrum disorders among children could drive demand for rehabilitation counselors when these young people begin to enter the workforce in large numbers. In some instances, rehabilitation counselors may also work with individuals suffering from mental illness such as depression and anxiety; increased coverage for mental health services under the Affordable Care Act may help to create more jobs in this field.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most new jobs for CRCs will occur within individual and family service agencies. Positions are posted on Internet job boards and the websites of community and government agencies.

Work Environment

A large portion of CRCs work for vocational rehabilitation services. Other common settings include state departments of vocational rehabilitation and community agencies serving the disabled. School districts, colleges and correctional facilities employ a significant number of rehab counselors. Experienced counselors often open their own practices.

Much of the rehabilitation process takes place in clients’ everyday environments, so CRCs frequently travel to homes, workplaces and schools. They spend much of their work time interacting with others, including clients, family members, employers and members of the treatment team. Assistive technologies, from electric wheelchairs to iPad apps, play an important role in the field.

Most CRCs work full time during regular business hours. However, they usually offer some evening and weekend sessions for the benefit of working clients.

Requirements

Education

To become a certified rehab counselor, candidates must hold a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a closely related field such as behavioral health or disability studies. An undergraduate education in psychology, school psychology, counseling, disability studies, or pre-med may be helpful. Volunteer or internship experience with disabled populations will provide necessary skills and help to bolster a prospective CRC’s resume.

Master’s programs in rehabilitation counseling require 2-3 years of coursework and experience beyond the bachelor’s level. Classes in this discipline typically cover counseling theories and strategies, assessment methods, career development and treatment planning, and legal procedures. All accredited counseling programs incorporate extensive, supervised clinical experience, which must be tracked and logged for certification purposes.

Most graduate-level counseling programs accept students from all majors. Some schools require candidates to meet certain GRE scores or experience requirements prior to admission. Interested applicants should aim for a GRE of 1200 and a GPA of 3.0 or higher, plus relevant experience. Graduate programs in rehabilitation counseling are accredited by the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE), which maintains a list of approved schools on its website.

Training

Most employers and licensing bodies require rehab counselors to engage in continuous professional education following graduate education and licensure. On-the-job training is often provided for interns and assistants, though newly hired counselors will also be trained on the particulars of their new workplace as well.

Licensing and/or Certification

Licensure rules for rehabilitation counselors vary geographically. Some states allow unlicensed counselors to work in agencies but require licensure of those in private practice. The website of the National Board for Certified Counselors is an excellent resource for state licensure information.

To become a certified rehabilitation counselor, candidates must first meet the eligibility criteria set by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. The simplest way to fulfill this requirement is to earn a master’s degree from a CORE-accredited program. Candidates must then pass a computer-based certification examination covering assessment, career development, case management, employment issues, counseling skills and disability management. Each exam is unique to the particular state granting licensure. See the American Counseling Association’s guide to certification for more details.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Most rehabilitation counselors are drawn to the profession by their compassion and empathy for people who are living with disabilities. Many have grown up with disabled relatives or friends, or themselves have disabilities. A genuine, outgoing interest in the well-being and agency of disabled people will help counselors to forge strong therapeutic relationships and to work effectively with family members, employers and other professionals.

An effective counselor will be patient and willing to accommodate his or her clients’ needs in terms of transportation, scheduling, and communication. It is essential that a counselor study and carefully consider issues of discrimination and stereotyping, and work to see all clients as possessing agency and full humanity, regardless of their mental or physical ability level. Respect for all people is a key requirement of the job and does not necessarily come naturally to all interested parties. Sympathy for the disabled is not sufficient to succeed in this line of work.

Counseling requires excellent speaking and listening skills. CRCs must be able to work effectively with people who have difficulty communicating and understanding in neurotypical ways. Counselors also rely on patience and emotional resilience to deal with occasional setbacks and conflicts that arise. Managing care is an intensive process that requires interaction with many social and bureaucratic systems, and those who are disorganized or easily frustrated will not do well in a counseling position.

Opportunities for Advancement

Experienced CRCs may be promoted to supervise the work of others as directors of counseling services or agency administrators. With sufficient experience and an outstanding track record, certified rehabilitation counselors may begin their own private practices, and enjoy independence and higher pay. Some CRCs leave the agency setting to conduct research or advocate from within academia. Those who hold a doctorate in rehabilitation counseling have the option to teach at the university level, which comes with greater flexibility and more benefits.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a certified rehabilitation counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

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