Peer Counseling: Consumer Involvement in Independent Living Programs


A fundamental difference between independent living and traditional rehabilitation counseling is consumer involvement in the service process. Advocates of peer counseling suggest that peers are particularly effective in helping people learn that they are not alone in their problems. Peers also serve as successful models, offer support, and provide assistance.

Purpose and Anticipated Benefits

Helping increases self-esteem and provides psychological support and offers a role model to the person receiving help, additional insight into peer counseling can benefit those receiving and giving assistance.


Mark Mathews, Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas, asked 123 independent living programs about their peer counseling services.




A 15-question mail survey


Fifty-eight percent of the 123 programs that completed and returned the survey indicated they offered peer counseling services. Most (53%) called their service "peer counseling" and the rest had a variety of names with "peer support" the only one identified by more than one program. Programs cited these goals for their peer counseling services:

  • Support and friendship (72%)
  • Assistance in problem solving (56%)
  • Skill training (42%)
  • Experienced advice (42%)
  • Nondirective counseling (35%)
  • Group counseling (30%)
  • Individual counseling (24%)
  • Advocacy (17%)

The majority of programs (82%) reported that they had procedures for recruiting and screening peer counselors. The most important experience was that the counselor had a disability or disability-related experience. Counseling experience in college also was considered essential for 19% of the programs. Nearly all of the surveyed programs offered some form of peer counselor training with 90% of it in small group training; 11% offered formal, one-on-one training sessions.

Content varied dramatically. The survey identified 50 topics and included the following listed in order from most to least offered: listening and counseling skills, information about community resources, disability awareness, role of peer counselor, sexuality and disability, philosophy and history of independent living, agency record-keeping procedures, problem-solving strategies, emotions, advocacy, assertiveness, legal rights, crisis intervention, and confidentially.

Peer counseling was offered more frequently by Title VII funded centers for independent living (68%) than other programs providing independent living services (50%).

Of the many differences among peer counseling programs, several programs considered peer counseling a direct service with support and friendship as its primary goals. They typically provided little or no training to counselors and viewed peer counseling as an opportunity for a newly disabled person to meet and talk with someone who has successfully dealt with his or her disability.

A contrasting style was offered by programs that viewed peer counseling as a specific method of service delivery. They saw peer counselors as service providers who offered assistance in problem solving, counseling, and advocacy. These programs were more likely to offer extensive training to peer counselors or require counseling experience.


A major difference between independent living programs and traditional rehabilitation counseling is consumer involvement in independent living programs. Peer counseling encourages this consumer involvement and remains a standard of the independent living movement.


Mathews, R. M., Mathews, S., & Pittman, J. (1985). Peer counseling: Consumer involvement in independent living programs. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin 28, 161-166.

Boles, C. (1984).Consumer involvement in service delivery. Research and Training Center Independent LivingForum.