Interview With a Rehabilitation Counseling Professional
Read a rehabilitation counselor’s inspiring career story.
Alfred Souma, M.A.
Seattle Central College
Over 28 years in the field
Alfred Souma is a rehabilitation counselor coordinating Disability Support Services since 1991 at Seattle Central College.
He speaks nationally on the topic of “Accommodating Students with Psychiatric Disabilities in the Classroom” and has presented over 30 workshops and seminars across the country.
We caught up with Mr. Souma to ask him some questions about rehabilitation counseling. This is what he had to say.
What does it mean to be a rehabilitation counselor?
Rehabilitation counseling deals with assisting people with disabilities to reach specific life goals and improve their quality of life. Most rehabilitation counselors specialize in a specific disability, such as spinal cord injury, blindness, deafness, head injury or psychiatric disability.
When I finished my graduate work, I specialized in working with individuals with psychiatric disabilities. In my current job in higher education, I work with students who have a variety of physical or psychological challenges.
What skills are most important in your rehabilitation counseling career?
The ability to interact with individuals in an empowering and supportive manner. Listening and putting others at ease is an invaluable skill in this profession. It is important to sincerely enjoy working with people and understand their needs. If you have that, you can learn the counseling skills and techniques. It also helps to have good mentors.
In high school, several of us volunteered to work with a young man with cerebral palsy, doing physical therapy types of exercises. That was my first introduction to rehabilitation.
My undergraduate studies were in special education, geared toward working with children. Then I did an internship in an outpatient day treatment program for psychiatric adults. My job was to assist newly released individuals from the state psychiatric hospital back into the community.
I helped find housing, taught interviewing skills and participated in group therapy and individual counseling. That’s when I knew I wanted a career in rehabilitation counseling.
I got an MS in rehabilitation counseling. The curriculum included courses in:
- casework management,
- counseling techniques,
- medical aspects of disabilities, and
- psychological aspects of disabilities.
Later I took a job in an inpatient forensic psychiatric setting, where I worked with maximum and medium security individuals. These were people who had committed some very serious crimes and were found not guilty by reason of insanity. I worked as part of a rehabilitation team and really enjoyed the team approach—working with my colleagues, discussing cases and offering clinical recommendations. I worked in that setting for 12 years until I made another career move.
Currently, I work with students to provide academic accommodations for their functional limitations, such as arranging for books on tapes, offering more time on exams, working with the college to reduce physical barriers, and providing individual counseling. It is personally and professionally rewarding.
I particularly enjoy watching students make progress in a short period of time. Compared to my inpatient work, two years is a short time to see progress. With a little assistance and strong personal motivation, I see a significant change in the students.
What is most challenging about counseling work?
There are one or two disabilities that are challenging to work with in creative ways. In an educational setting, it is challenging to work with an individual with head injuries. A main symptom of head injuries is memory loss, while a main component of education is remembering things. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to develop effective strategies to counter this functional limitation.
What experiences are most useful for someone becoming a counselor?
I’ve always been a strong believer in volunteering. Different settings usually specialize in different disabilities—blindness, deafness, spinal cord or head injuries. Volunteering in a hospital or rehab setting gives you an idea of which disabilities you feel most effective with. It also gives you a real idea of what the job expectations will be like once you graduate.