Rehabilitation Psychology


Prepared by: Marcia Scherer, Kelly Blair, Martha E. Banks, Bernard Brucker, John Corrigan, and Stephen Wegener.

What is Rehabilitation Psychology?

Rehabilitation Psychology is a specialty area of practice within the broad field of psychology. Rehabilitation Psychology is the application of psychological knowledge and understanding on behalf of individuals with disabilities and society through such activities as research, clinical practice, teaching, public education, development of social policy and advocacy. Professionals who provide Rehabilitation Psychology services are called Rehabilitation Psychologists. Rehabilitation Psychologists participate in a broad range of activities including clinical care, program development, service provision, research, education, administration, public policy.

Rehabilitation Psychologists work in diverse settings including acute care hospitals and medical centers, inpatient and outpatient physical rehabilitation units/centers, nursing homes and assisted living centers, community agencies specializing in services for a particular type of disability or chronic illness (e.g. cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, deafness) and other types of settings such as pain and sports injury centers and cardiac rehabilitation facilities. They may work for private facilities or for such government facilities as Veterans Administration hospitals and centers. Rehabilitation Psychologists serve individuals throughout the lifespan, from early childhood through late adulthood. Many Rehabilitation Psychologists are full time university or college faculty and focus primarily on teaching and research. Others may work in or consult to industry, provide expert legal testimony, or conduct assessments and evaluations for insurance agencies. Rehabilitation Psychologists advocate for improvement of life conditions for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses; as such they are involved in the development and promotion of legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rehabilitation Psychologists who provide clinical and counseling services assist individuals in coping with, and adjusting to, chronic, traumatic or congenital injuries or illnesses that may result in a wide variety of physical, sensory, neurocognitive, emotional, and/or developmental disabilities. These may include (but are not limited to): spinal cord injury; brain injury; stroke, amputations; neuromuscular disorders; medical conditions with the potential to limit functioning and participation in life activities such as cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or limb weakness; chronic pain; congenital or chronic developmental disorder such as mental retardation; severe psychiatric disability; substance abuse; impairments in sensory functioning; burns and/or disfigurement; deafness and hearing loss; blindness and vision loss; and other physical, mental and/or emotional impairments compounded by cultural, educational and/or other disadvantages.

Rehabilitation Psychologists provide services with the goal of increasing function and reducing disability, activity limitations, and societal participation restrictions. The person served is seen as an active partner in the treatment process and thus the services provided take into account the person’s preferences, needs, and resources. Consistent with the World Health Organization’s recently adopted International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF), the Rehabilitation Psychologist works with the individual with a disability or chronic illness to address personal factors impacting on the ICF domains of activities and participation. This includes assessing and addressing neurocognitive status, mood/emotions, desired level of independence/interdependence, mobility/freedom of movement, self-esteem and self-determination, subjective view of capabilities and quality of life as well as satisfaction with achievements in specific areas such as work, social relationships, and being able to go where one wishes beyond the mere physical capability to do so. Rehabilitation Psychologists take the influences of culture, ethnicity, gender, residence and geographic location, relative visibility and/or assumption of disability on attitudes and available services into account when planning services and interventions. Rehabilitation Psychologists explore with individuals environmental barriers to their participation and activity performance and the means to address these barriers including accommodations/adaptations in existing structures or materials, the use of assistive technology, and the use of personal assistance services. For individuals with severe disabilities or illness, it is often a blend of these products and services that is most beneficial.

The Rehabilitation Psychologist provides services to families and primary caregivers as well as other significant people in the individual’s social/community circle (for example, teachers, employers, clergy, friends). The goal of Rehabilitation Psychology is to assist the individual (and those significant others who are involved in treatment planning and on-going provision of support) in achieving optimal physical, psychological, and interpersonal functioning by addressing the obstacles preventing the highest level of personal and social functioning. Rehabilitation Psychologists view persons served holistically and they seek to broaden opportunities for maximum individual functioning as well as functioning and participation in social relationships, social activities, education, employment, and the community.

Some Rehabilitation Psychologists work within a broad variety of health-care settings and with a broad range of persons with varying disabilities and illnesses while others specialize in a particular area of clinical practice. Regardless of setting or area of specialization, the Rehabilitation Psychologist is consistently involved in interdisciplinary teamwork and provides services within the network of biological, psychological, social, environmental, and political environments to assist the persons served in achieving optimal rehabilitation goals. Thus, in addition to working directly with the persons served and their families, Rehabilitation Psychologists often serve an important role in providing consultations regarding disability and health issues to attorneys, courts, government agencies, educational institutions, corporate facilities, and insurance companies.

Rehabilitation Psychologists have completed doctoral degrees in psychology and have had extensive pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training in health-care settings. Further, Rehabilitation Psychologists providing clinical services are usually required to be licensed in order to provide services in their state of practice and to receive reimbursement for services from health insurance payers. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) recognizes Rehabilitation Psychology as a specialty area of practice within psychology. The ABPP’s definition of Rehabilitation Psychology was a significant and primary source in the development of the present description. While Rehabilitation Psychologists belong to many professional organizations relevant to their area of practice and specialization, the major organization representing Rehabilitation Psychology is theĀ American Psychological Association, Division of Rehabilitation Psychology. This Division publishes a scholarly journal, newsletter, and sponsors sessions relevant to Rehabilitation Psychology research and practice at the annual APA conference held annually in August as well as other education venues for psychologists and other health professionals. The American Psychological Association can be contacted for a list of Rehabilitation Psychologists in the U.S. as well as those members who live outside the U.S.