Finding a job in this economy is tough enough, but having a disability can make it much harder. That's where rehabilitation counselors come in. They are mental health professionals trained to assist people with physical and mental disabilities to find work and live independently.

"We call it one of the best kept secrets in psychology," said Brad Kuhlman, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology at St. Cloud State University ( which has offered a master's degree in Rehabilitation Counseling since the 1970s. Graduates work with employers, state agencies, independent living programs, hospitals and clinics to help their clients. Minnesota State University, Mankato ( and the University of Wisconsin-Stout ( .

Getting their masters
Most students enter the program with a bachelor's degree in psychology, but any bachelor's degree will suffice. More important is the student's interest in helping people with disabilities, Kuhlman said. Students receive basic training in counseling and more advanced courses in learning about and managing disability and helping people find employment. Students spend most of their last year doing internships at state offices, colleges or nonprofit agencies.

Maggie Ortner works as a rehabilitation counselor at Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development's Chaska office helping adults with mental health disabilities. She works to determine what type of services they need in order to find a job, such as a work evaluation, an assistive technology assessment or a retraining program.

A look ahead
"We're helping them plan for their future and what type of work they're going to do," Ortner said. "I love to come up with different options and possibilities, but at the same time you have to be a realist because you're working with this economy … It's a balance of being realistic and helping them attain goals."

Rehabilitation counselors are in high demand and new graduates may earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year, according to Kuhlman. "We have many employers who come to us looking for graduates," he said. "It's a very fulfilling area. Working with people and seeing that you're making a difference helping people become independent is a very exciting part of this job."

"You do make a difference in people's lives," Ortner said. "It's a big difference. If you're unemployed and you want employment and you can't get into the door because you have a barrier, (I'm) helping people overcome that barrier. It literally makes a world of difference."