One of the basic human behaviors is trying to connect with others through shared and similar experiences. It helps us feel comfortable with new people because we can understand and relate to them.
“You like Beyonce, too?”
“I love Beyonce!”
“You’ve also been to Spain?”
“I love going to Spain, I go every year!”
“You broke your leg, too?”
“Yeah I broke my leg when I was 12.”
By making these connections, we can better understand another person’s life; their dreams and fears, struggles and interests. Yet, for people with disabilities, it can feel harder to connect with others, and for other people to truly understand their life. Through Peer counseling, though, it’s possible to get support and help from people who share your disabilities and experiences.
What is Peer Counseling?
Peer counseling (for people with disabilities) is getting help from a trained professional, who also shares a disability. The goal is for somebody who understands the problems and barriers you have be able to listen, give practical advice, and generally help out.
A peer counselor isn’t simply a person who has a disability; they have to be a trained and certified counselor. A good peer counselor is able to listen, emphasize, identify problems, provide actionable solutions, and have the knowledge necessary to empower those they work with. It’s different from traditional counseling, because those doing the counseling have direct experience living with a disability. They have a much better understanding of what it’s like, and can more easily relate to their clients.
Peer counselors can fill a variety of different roles when it comes to helping others. Some can help with emotional support, others advocate for disability rights and show their clients what programs are available to them, and some specialize in teaching skills necessary to surviving and flourishing regardless of the disability. They can also do one-on-one or support group counseling, depending on the needs in the community.
Advantages of Peer Counseling for Individuals with Disabilities
There are tons of benefits to pursuing peer counseling rather than traditional counseling, mainly being able to work with somebody who had first hand experience in having a disability. Many traditional counselors are sympathetic to people with disabilities, but a peer counselor lives it, they overcome challenges every day. They know their advice works because they already practice it.
Another advantage is having a role model/somebody to look up to who also has a disability. Peer counseling believes that those with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as those that don’t, it falls to the individual to seize them and become independent. By working alongside them, they provide a positive role model and example to follow.
By supporting peer counselors, you also are enabling others with disabilities to stay independent, as an extra benefit. Peer counseling gives people a rewarding career where they can help others and make a living.
Advocacy in Counseling for Individuals with Disabilities
Counseling can come in many different forms, a very common one for the disabled though is advocacy counseling. These counselors teach others the many programs and rights available to them, and what they need to do to get the assistance they need.
Advocacy counselors educate others on a variety of topics. They’ll cover the many programs designed to help those with disabilities including those that are: government or privately owned, free or paid, catered towards specific disabilities or for general needs, and more. This could be physical, mental, financial help, and more. Many programs require participants to jump through hoops and involve paperwork, which is daunting to those without prior knowledge. An advocacy counselor can identify the right programs for each person, and then guide them on how to get the benefits they need.
Counselors can also teach the many skills needed to properly advocate for themselves. Some disabilities inhibit a person’s ability to communicate (including vocal and written communication), yet many programs require things like filled out forms and/or phone calls. A counselor could teach others how to fill out a form, how to communicate over the phone, or any other number of necessary skills.
How to Become a Peer Counselor
Are you looking for a way to give back to your community? A disability doesn’t have to prevent you from helping others. Becoming a peer counselor is one way to make connections, assist others, and earn an income. It does require training and certification, along with the skills necessary to become a counselor. That means good listening and communication skills, a dedicated amount of patience, a knowledge of government programs, and the desire to help other people.
Peer Counselor Training
The main resource for peer counselor training is through your state’s health and welfare department (or equivalent agency). In order to become a peer counselor, you must complete the training in full and meet any other requirements your state has. Most states require at least a high school diploma in addition to whatever supplemental training they provide.
Typical training programs are about three to five days long, or take 30 hours to complete. Depending on your state, some training can be done completely online, while others require physical attendance.
Peer Counselor Certification
Once any required training is completed, anybody interested in becoming a counselor has to secure their certification. Again, requirements to become certified differ state to state, most requiring proof of completing the training and taking an exam. This exam will test the main components of peer counseling, including: knowledge of disability laws, understanding of multiple programs, communication skills, and more. If you want to work in a specific sector of peer counseling, such as substance abuse or mental disabilities, you will be required to take additional exams.
If you pass and become certified, you might need to maintain your certification year to year, depending on where you live. This might include continuing your education in counseling, participating in required training, or even re-taking the certification exam.
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