People with disabilities, whether physical or emotional, often need a particular kind of support to be able to live independently. This is where rehabilitation counselors come in. They help individuals cope with the effects of their disabilities as they relate to independent living. In some places this job is called community disability practitioner. Without the services of these counselors, many people who are quite capable of living on their own would instead be forced to live in some type of a care facility. Research has shown that when people can be supported to live independently they are far healthier, are less reliant on family caregivers, and are more productive members of society as a whole, so a rehabilitation counselor is an extremely important job.
Persons with disabilities can include the elderly, who may be having problems adjusting to new health limitations, or who are generally healthy but experiencing problems with certain functions due to injury or illness. Clients may also be individuals with developmental disabilities, such as fetal alcohol syndrome or muscular dystrophy. Counselors often work with people dealing with specific stressful or difficult situations that have left them temporary challenged, such as injury. This could include veterans coping with physical and emotional effects of military service. Because the rehabilitation counselor works with individuals who are able to live independently and remain active and functional members of society, they often work with older students and young adults, exploring educational and career options. Rehabilitation counselors work with compassion and empathy, but must also find a balance between being kind and gentle and being firm and assertive.
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The rehabilitation counselor performs a range of duties, much of them dependent on the client group, age and type of disability. An assessment of abilities and needs is done, taking into account interests, education level, and general health, and strategies are developed for overcoming limitations and maximizing strengths. The counselor's goal is to help clients learn to adjust to their disability, both physically and emotionally.
In consultation with other professionals, family members, and the individual, the counselor develops a treatment plan based on client goals, strengths, limitations and personal values. Making connections with community supports is a key part of the job, educating the individual in what types of services are available, and how to access and utilize these. Community services can relate to medical, vocational, learning, recreational, and leisure needs. The counselor finds programs and employers that will provide job support services, educates employers in understanding the needs and abilities of disabled people, and helps arrange employment opportunities.
Developing support networks is essential for an individual who wishes to remain living independently despite disabilities and limitations. The rehabilitation counselor helps develop these networks, whether they include family, friends, or others in the community. Mental health counseling is also involved, either independently or as part of a mental health team.
Practitioners may work independently or as part of a professional team that includes doctors, psychologists, therapists, educators, and family members. Job tasks also include:
assisting with personal care
providing support, guidance and training to both the individuals and their families
offering guidance to support networks
Creating and maintaining accurate records is very important in the development of long-term plans. The rehabilitation counselor helps individuals to create not only residential goals, but those relating to behaviour, social activities, and employment.
In most places educational requirements are, at minimum, college-level community rehabilitation training, but in the U.S. a master's degree is usually preferred. Workers with a Master's in Rehabilitation and Disability Studies will have a much greater range of employment options and better wage expectations. In Canada programs are offered for a one-year or two-year diploma or certificate for entry-level positions. Strong marks in English language arts and social studies are an entrance requirement, and additional training can include topics like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Standard First Aid and CPR certificates, criminal and child welfare checks, and health immunization records are also prerequisites of employment in most countries. A period of supervised internship is also necessary.
Loving people and having a desire to help others are important qualities for this type of work. An interest in development of innovative approaches and creative problem solving will contribute to employment success. Advocating for client rights and for the rights of disabled people in general is also an important part of the job, and the counselor must be able to work independently or as part of a team of professionals. Other personal characteristics include:
empathy and respect for individuals they are working with
a positive and enthusiastic attitude, able to motivate people
good communication skills, good listening abilities
In most places some form of certification or licensing is usually required. This means applicants must meet advanced education, work experience and clinical supervision requirements.
Rehabilitation counselors may work in private homes, health care settings, or residential, educational or recreational facilities. Hours may be variable and include shift work, depending on patient needs and the work setting. If part of a professional group of practitioners, standard office hours may apply including some evening work and meeting attendance. Some counselors work in private practice, which involves marketing to prospective clients and dealing with insurance companies.
Rehabilitation counselors earn an average of $32,000 a year in the U.S. In Canada wages range between $18-$20 an hour. For counselors working in private practice, wages can be much higher depending on skills, specialization and reputation.