How Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors self-sabotage

There is currently a senate bill under consideration, S.1356, which will eliminate a qualified personnel requirement for vocational rehabilitation that could downgrade the professional identities of vocational rehabilitation counselors, filling open positions with less qualified individuals working for less money with less autonomy and less flexibility. In my limited experience, what I would say to vocational rehabilitation counselors is this: “you asked for it.”

I am currently a tenure-track assistant professor at a university where I teach masters degree courses in counseling. Among my specialties and background is rehabilitation counseling. Rehabilitation counseling (RC) is perhaps best known for its focus on vocation as an essential component of a person’s life. RCs assist people with all sorts of disabilities: physical, mental health, addictive, and developmental; acute and chronic. We’re found in hospitals, clinical counseling agencies, schools, and pretty much anywhere else you might find people who have disabilities of any sort. We are trained as clinical counselors, using the same or similar literature as counseling psychologists, social workers, clinical counselors, school counselors, and other therapists. Many of us work in a setting mostly known as “public rehabilitation”, or “Vocational Rehabilitation”. Every state has an agency or division responsible for assisting people with documented disabilities and demonstrated barriers to suitable employment to achieve that employment. In North Carolina, this is called “Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services“, in Pennsylvania, it’s “Office of Vocational Rehabilitation“, and in Ohio, it is called “Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation“. No matter what it’s called, each state’s VR program follows guidelines and receives partial funding from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). The RSA is, (still at this moment), part of the Department of Education, which reflects rehabilitation counseling’s long heritage in partnering with schools and training programs. RSA has set forth qualifications through Comprehensive System of Personnel Development guidelines found in the Rehabilitation Act. Click on CSPD for background information on this.

CSPD qualifications include, for VR counselors, a master’s degree.  Counselors need to be trained at the graduate level in counseling- but that is likely to change, if S.1356 is signed into law. Why would they get the idea that master’s level counselors with high quality rehabilitation training could be replaced with people who have no counselor education background, no therapy coursework, no graduate level training? Because for years, vocational rehabilitation counselors have failed to perform the functions with which they were trained.

My soapbox message, in career counseling, vocational rehabilitation, and occupational analysis related courses is as follows: take the time to counsel. Your work will be more effective, your clients will be more motivated, and the outcomes will be more substantial. Among the responses that I hear from vocational rehabilitation counselors, the most frequent is, “but my caseload is too big,” … “who has the time?” … “I spend all my time just meeting casework deadlines!” Indeed, caseloads are large. I worked for VR agencies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and my caseloads were both large. My favorite piece of advice was from a manager named Billy Ross, who inspired me with the imagery of a “water-bug”. Mr. Ross had watched his top counselor to see why this was the top counselor- and that is what he saw. A water-bug. Here is a video of a water strider. These four-legged bugs move quickly across the surface. Consider how they cover a lot of ground very quickly. A counselor can meet deadlines as a water strider- a hand on the folder, a hand on the phone, or computer. The point that I took was that you need to move quickly on casework- and I took it a step further. I got my paperwork out of the way as quickly as possible. That frenzy was powered by a desire to spend more time actually counseling with my clients. I became very efficient at paperwork. I did not like a pile of anything to last very long, so I would make as much progress on a case as I could, and then schedule a day on my calendar to follow up on whatever it was I needed to wait for, to move that case forward. The point was to get it out of the way, because I was a counselor- not a paper pusher. But that is the problem.

Several of my students have come back from a field experience placement and shared that they were absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork. They inevitably repeated what the counselors around them had said: “there is no time to be with the clients, to counsel- it’s all we can do to keep up with the paperwork!” … When I hear this, I always feel like I have failed at trying to turn the tide, because with all the focus on “you are a counselor” that I could inject into my students, they would have just a day in a typical state vocational rehabilitation agency office and come back as a paperwork zombie. This unwritten attitude is so entrenched that VR deals with repeat clients, high job turnover, and countless closures where a person simply falls out of contact for lack of intervention with his or her VR counselor. “Guidance and counseling” is a frequent staple on the standard individual plan for employment document, but is it really being provided? In many cases, the counselor establishes a plan and then refers to the purveyors of community rehabilitation programs. The service provided in this case is basically eligibility determination and writing a check.

You don’t need a master’s degree for eligibility determination and check writing. You barely need a bachelor’s degree. And parity with other federally associated programs where eligibility and check writing are the substantive services provided, would beg the question, “why do we need masters-trained counselors for vocational rehabilitation?”

Because, with a few exceptions, VR counselors aren’t counseling. Why? Because they see no incentives from within the work adjustment career counseling model that we use. The “few exceptions” link is to a Motivational Interviewing practice which the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Washington State has adopted this evidence based practice with good results.

My advice to vocational rehabilitation counselors has not changed. Want to be paid, respected, and resourced as a counselor? Act like one. Disagree with me? Prove me wrong.

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