Peer Providers – How Your Experience Makes You Right for the Job

Living, learning, and working with a disability can be challenging. Sometimes, the best person to understand what you’re going through might be someone who’s also been there. A peer provider is someone who draws on their own lived experience of disability, along with training and professional support, to provide services like counseling and coaching to people with the same type of disability.

According to recent studies, peer providers are a rapidly-growing part of the workforce supporting people with disabilities and chronic conditions. Peer providers can be found in many different settings such as behavioral health and substance use disorder programs, wellness and health promotion programs, and school and university programs supporting students with disabilities. In some settings, peers provide support informally or on a volunteer basis, in other settings they may have a formal, paid position within an organization. The position may be called a peer support specialist, a recovery or wellness coach, a job coach, or similar.

Each program or service agency will have different requirements and qualifications for peer providers, but those qualifications could include: a certain level of education like a high school degree/GED or some college; self-identifying as a person with a disability, either generally or with a specific condition; and a history of work or volunteer experience. Some programs may also require certification from a recognized source, like a training program or an accrediting organization. Other programs may require new peer providers to attend a specific training program which results in certification.

Being a peer provider can be both rewarding and challenging. It can be rewarding to see your peers learn, grow, and do well in the program. It can be challenging to maintain a professional relationship and know when you are crossing the boundary between counselor and friend. Successful peer provider programs include training on managing boundaries and the stress of busy schedules and supervisors who are trained on the role of peer providers and how to support them.

Peer support is an important part of many of the programs of the Administration for Community Living (ACL). For example, peer counseling and peer support are core services of Centers for Independent Living in the US. The National Resource Center for Self-Advocacy enhances leadership skills for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through fellowships to individuals, along with training and technical assistance to a variety of organizations. The State Councils on Developmental Disabilities (or DD Councils) also help with self-empowerment and self-advocacy through peer engagement. The National Limb Loss Resource Center and National Paralysis Resource Center both run active peer support programs for people with those types of disabilities.

Several NIDILRR-funded projects are currently conducting research and development in peer-provided services. These include:

INROADS: Intersecting Research on Opioid Misuse, Addiction, and Disability Services, which includes an examination of peer support services for people with disabilities who are also living with opioid use disorders.

The CrossingPoints High Tide project develops, tests, and refines a model of off-campus integrated community living and participation for students with intellectual disabilities (ID) attending the CrossingPoints postsecondary program at The University Alabama. This model includes peer mentors and college students with ID living and participating in an off-campus community setting.

The Research and Training Center for Pathways to Positive Futures: Building Self-Determination and Community Living and Participation includes AMP+: Developing the Young Adult Peer Support Workforce. AMP+ is a field test of a workforce intervention that is focused on 1) training and coaching peer support providers who work with emerging adults with serious mental health conditions, and 2) working with supervisors and administrators in agencies that employ peer support providers to ensure that the agencies are prepared to supervise and support them. This project is also supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The Northeast Ohio Regional Spinal Cord Injury Model System includes a peer navigator program which matches a peer navigator, a former patient who has successfully returned to an active and productive life after injury, to a newly injured patient while that patient is in the acute hospital and followed for 1-year post-rehabilitation discharge.

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Improving Employment Outcomes for Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities includes a randomized clinical trial to evaluate the efficacy of the peer-run Vocational Empowerment Photovoice (VEP) program and a training program called Advanced Practitioner and Peer Specialist Skills (APPS): Building Partnerships for Employment. This project is also supported by SAMHSA.

The Learning & Working During the Transition to Adulthood Rehabilitation Research & Training Center has developed a Toolkit for employers of youth and young adult peer recovery workers and a research project on Peer Academic Coaching Support for College Students. This project is also supported by SAMHSA.

Parents Empowering Parents: National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities and Their Families is developing, adapting, testing, and scaling-up interventions that include a parent peer specialist model for parents with psychiatric disabilities and a virtual peer support intervention for Deaf parents.

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Health and Self-Directed Care includes a project to develop a Model to Promote Health and Recovery after Medical Hospitalizations: Community Health Workers Teamed with Peer Specialists. This center also offers a toolkit which reviews the many ways that peer support specialists improve supported employment programs and describes how peer specialists are working to deliver and support IPS services. This project is also supported by SAMHSA.

This center also conducted a study of Weight Management and Wellness for People with Psychiatric Disabilities, which used innovative strategies to promote wellness such as peer support and modeling, exercise videos featuring people with psychiatric disabilities, real-world weight management strategies that are inexpensive and easily adopted, and freely available instructor and participant manuals.

Our Research In Focus series looked at studies of programs that employ peer providers, counselors, and coaches:

Would you like to learn more about becoming a peer provider?

Are you interested in more research on peer providers? Dive into the REHABDATA database with this search for peer support, providers, counselors, and coaches.