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University of Iowa News Release

April 29, 2004

Professor Studies Ethical Decision-Making Among Rehabilitation Counselors

Let's say you're a rehabilitation counselor trying to find a good job for your client, who is developmentally disabled.

Your client says she's heard about a manufacturing job and is excited to go to work at the company, where some of her friends also work. You want to encourage her, but you also know that your client is unqualified for the job and that the work could pose serious safety risks, given her disabilities.

What do you do? How do you support your client's desire to become a productive member of society without putting her at risk to herself or others?

These are the kinds of thorny ethical questions rehabilitation counselors face every day. With the help of a $45,000 federal grant, Jodi Saunders, an assistant professor in the University of Iowa College of Education, hopes to find out how people in the field tackle such issues, isolate the best practices that she observes and apply them to future curriculum used by students training to become rehabilitation counselors.

Saunders, a native of Vicksburg in Kalamazoo County, Mich., is one of only six professionals nationwide to receive the prestigious Mary E. Switzer Merit research fellowship, which is administered by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, part of the U.S. Department of Education. This weekend, Saunders will fly to Washington, D.C. to present her findings so far to the NIDRR, along with the five other recipients of the Switzer fellowship.

According to NIDRR's website, the organization provides leadership and support for a comprehensive program of research related to the rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities, and its programs seek to improve the lives of people with disabilities, from birth through adulthood.

Saunders received the grant, which is for the 2003-2004 academic year, while she was still an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She was hired by the UI's Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation, and Student Development in August 2003.

She said the quantitative component of her research has involved examining three groups within rehabilitation counseling: students, who have no experience; professionals with two to five years of experience; and expert counselors with many years of experience.

"The research I'm doing is looking at the ethical behaviors and decision-making of rehabilitation counselors and rehabilitation counseling students," Saunders said. "My hypothesis is, if you have more experience, you may make better ethical decisions."

During the qualitative phase of the study, Saunders is going to pose hypothetical situations to participants and ask them to think out loud as they seek a solution, which will give Saunders a glimpse into the cognitive process behind ethical decision-making. While this method is used in other fields, such as physics, Saunders believes it's the first time it's being applied to rehabilitation counseling.

"We need to know how they're thinking," she said.

She said the grant runs through August. After she's assessed her findings, she said the next step will be to incorporate the best practices into course materials used to train future rehabilitation counselors.

That way, she says, they'll be better prepared to work with clients in a way that's rewarding for both parties.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007,