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  Empowerment Through Peer Counseling

By Dale Susan Brown


Copyright © 2005 Dale S. Brown



As a volunteer in the self-help movement for people with disabilities, I have expended substantial time and effort counseling and assisting people who have disabilities. My experience, extending over twelve years, has led me to believe that peer counseling and building close relationships are key to personal empowerment. And that personal empowerment is key to political empowerment.

What is personal empowerment? Personal empowerment is the ability to choose one’s actions. A personally-empowered individual thinks and behaves as if he or she is capable, despite the negative messages about disability that are woven into our society. These negative messages not only affect the external environment of the individual who is disabled, but are often internalized. Frequently, the individual accepts as truth what he or she has experienced or has been told. This tendency of minority groups to accept negative stereotyping about themselves is often referred to as internalized oppression.

External oppression refers to both barriers and beliefs. An example of such barriers is an environment that disempowers or a system that strips people of their dignity. "Beliefs" refers to generally accepted tenets of society that imply that people with disabilities are some how "less able" than people who are not disabled.

Internalized oppression occurs when an individual comes to accept these stereotypical beliefs as truths and acts upon them. For example, one negative belief held by society is that people with disabilities are not capable of working. As a consequence, people with disabilities might not try to find work. Or they might feel "grateful" to be given the chance to work. An individual who feels grateful might feel uncomfortable in asking for reasonable accommodations to enable him or her to perform at peak levels.

It is rare that an individual can throw off a lifetime of negative stereotyping in an instant without appropriate support from others. People who have received large does of negative feedback from others or have experienced a traumatic event need to share their experiences and feelings before they are ready to tackle the next challenge. Unexpressed emotions tend to interfere with clear thinking and rational actions. An individual who becomes disabled from an accident often needs to grieve over his or her loss before becoming motivated to begin rehabilitation. Listening to an individual express those feelings is a powerful form of support that anyone can do. It is particularly important for people who have experienced the negative effects of society’s attitudes towards disability.

Peer Counseling Techniques

During the 1960's and 1970's, two trends converged: the development of self-help groups and the use of peer helpers in educational settings. During the 1980's, as funding levels dropped for human services programs, peer counseling was frequently used as a cost-effective alternative to traditional services. The disability movement picked up on these trends, and during the early 1980's, many community-based independent living centers developed peer counseling programs. Additionally, community-based disability support and advocacy groups widely disseminated peer-counseling techniques.

My work in the field of learning disabilities was on the cutting edge of that process. Leaders in the self-help and advocacy movements found that they were overwhelmed by people who wished to talk to them about their problems. We found that until people were able to "tell their stories," they could not empower themselves to take the next step in self-improvement or community work. However, it became clear that they needed to help each other, rather than to rely solely on professional support. We set up peer support groups and workshops to teach people to listen to each other. Hundreds of support groups and numerous peer counseling relationships were formed during the that time. Here are some of the most important peer counseling techniques:

*Listen well. Let the individual tell you the entire story.

When he or she stops, ask open ended questions such as:

Tell me more.

What happened next?

How did you feel?

What did you want to say?

*Look at the person with respect and approval. Your voice and eyes should show interest and the wish to hear more. On the telephone, say, "Yes," and "Go on," occasionally so that your conversational partner knows you are listening.

*Resist the temptation to interrupt with a story of your own. It is important to ignore your own feelings and concentrate on the person who is speaking. Your friendly listening creates the atmosphere that enables the individual to empower him or herself.

*Encourage the expression of emotions. Until the individual is able to express anger and hurt, it is difficult for him or her to make a rational choice or decision.

*Ask questions that connect the present difficulties with similar problems in the past. For example, a college student has a problem with a professor. The professor. The professor may have given him or her a bad grade, have been unwilling to make a necessary accommodation, or simply hadn’t had the time to assist the student. The student feel powerless and unwilling to talk to the professor. Or he or she discusses the situation defiantly. The peer counselor can help by asking the student for information such as:

"Did this happen before? How did you feel?"

"When was the first time you experienced this?"

*Perhaps the student has brought past negative experiences with parents or teachers to the current situation . The peer counselor might ask, "How is this situation different from the past situation?" Sorting out today’s experience from yesterday’s experience is helpful.

*State the truth and bring out the positive reality. For example, many people with learning disabilities feel they are stupid. It’s important to tell the individual how smart he or she really is and to encourage thinking of examples to prove it. The individual who feels "grateful to have a job" needs to understand his or her own worth. Perhaps the employer is the one who should feel "grateful" to have the individual with a disability on staff.

Obtaining "Counseling" for Yourself

Most people find listening to others a deeply satisfying experience. A husband listened to his wife for ten minutes without interruption during a "listening skills" workshop exercise.

"I never knew how eloquent she was," he told the participants. Many people with disabilities, able-bodied allies, and family members all agree that they learn more from their peers from five minutes of listening than they did in years of meetings with professionals.

However, listening can be hard work. Particularly if their problems remind you of your own, it can lead to early burnout.

It is important, therefore, to find equal time for yourself. Find someone with whom you can talk about your own difficulties. Express yourself. Think aloud. If they cannot listen well, find someone who can.

Support Groups

An easy way to organize people for personal empowerment is to hold regular meetings of support groups. Support groups come in many formats: learning from experts, "twelve-step" groups, discussions, and group therapy sessions. Each organization that encourages support groups has its own policies and counseling techniques. Many support groups are freestanding, that is, developed by a community member who wants to organize people who share similar problems.

A support group can be organized by anyone, a volunteer or a professional, a person with or without a disability. The format requires no agenda, no work, and limited planning time on the part of the leader. Keep the group small (ten or less) and follow these steps:

*Ask everyone to share some good news, preferably something that has nothing to do with the issue of disability that has bought the group together.

*Divide the amount of time remaining in the session by the number of people in attendance. Subtract two minutes. Give each person that amount of time to answer an open-ended question such as:

"What is it like for you to teach children with disabilities in your classroom?"

"What was it like growing up with a disability?"

"What is the key issue facing you right now? How are you planning to tackle this issue?"

*Each group should select a "chief listener" whose job it is to ask open ended questions and encourage expression of emotions. Toward the end of each individual’s "turn," the chief listener should turn the speaker’s attention away from his or her problems. This can be done through small talk or discussion of daily activities.

*Most groups have some sort of closing where each person talks briefly. Each group member might want to set a goal for next week or talk about something that he or she enjoyed about today’s session.

These groups can become quite intense and, as trust develops, people share deeply of themselves. For this reason, everyone must agree to confidentiality.

Individual peer support that people can give each other, formalized peer support where two people meet and share time, and support groups all have the same goal- enabling people to express their experiences and feelings. This gets rid of negative emotion and leaves room for positive action. Empowerment is more than a political term; it is the process of taking charge of one’s life. This empowerment happens more easily if peers support each other through listening.

Often, a personally empowered individual will realize that many of his or her problems are caused by societal forces. This realization enables that person to stop internalizing blame, to want to become active in the community, to challenge discrimination, or to help others. Then they begin the process away from personal empowerment to political empowerment.


Ackridge R. (1986). Peer-provided rehabilitative services, in E.L. Pan S.S. Newman, T.E.Backer & C.L. Vash, Annual Review of Rehabilitation (1-38). New York. Springer Publishing Company.

Publication Information

Empowerment Through Peer Counseling was originally Published in Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services News-In-Print, Fall, 1992. The article did not reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education. The information may be freely distributed, a credit line to the author (Dale Susan Brown) would be appreciated.

Dale S. Brown

Biographical Information

Dale Susan Brown is co-author (with Dick Bolles) of Job-Hunting for the So-Called Handicapped. (Ten-Speed Press). She is a nationally-known expert on getting people with disabilities to work. She has written four other published books and hundreds of articles on the topic. She has won numerous awards for her advocacy, including the Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award given by the US Jaycees...more



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