Habilitative vs. Rehabilitative Therapy: Key Differences

Updated June 8, 2023

Habilitative and rehabilitative therapy are two subsections of therapeutic patient care. When choosing a therapy specialty, it's important to know the differences between these two types of care to identify which area is most interesting to you. Understanding how these specialties include factors like patient age, requirements and treatment plans can help you determine which area to pursue.

In this article, we describe what habilitative and rehabilitative therapy are and explore their differences and similarities.

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What is habilitative therapy?

Habilitative therapy is a treatment option that helps patients learn or improve skills or functions necessary for daily life, which they're unable to develop naturally on their own. With this type of therapy, people can learn the skills necessary to function in school and society or to be as independent as possible. 

For example, a child with delayed speech or motor skills may engage in habilitative therapy to learn a skill that didn't develop on its own. This type of treatment is common in pediatrics for helping children who aren't developing at an age-appropriate level. Habilitative therapy can also serve to prevent injuries and falls in the elderly.

Related: FAQs: What Jobs Are in Demand for Occupational Therapy?

What is rehabilitative therapy?

Rehabilitative therapy is a treatment option that helps patients regain skills or functions they've lost because of injury or illness. Patients may have been able to engage in functions such as walking, talking or other activities before an accident or incident. However, new circumstances might require them to relearn or strengthen these old abilities. For example, an athlete who sustained a serious back injury may require therapy to relearn how to walk on his own without an assistive device.

Related: Learn How To Become a Rehabilitation Therapist

Habilitative vs. rehabilitative

Here's an overview of the primary differences and similarities between habilitative and rehabilitative therapeutic care:


Habilitative and rehabilitative therapy have a variety of differences, which include:

Treatment plans

Treatment plans for rehabilitative and habilitative patients follow different courses and structures. For habilitative therapy, patients are essentially learning something new that they've never experienced before. They haven't created the neural pathways to do or remember how to do certain voluntary and involuntary actions. It's up to a therapist to create a plan that makes this happen.

In contrast, rehabilitative therapy patients get treatment for functions they once completed. They may still consciously understand how to do an action but have difficulty making their bodies complete the work, such as after a stroke or paralysis. It's also possible that their neural pathways lost the connection between memory and process, and a therapist works to repair those lines. Additionally, factors such as age, gender, previous medical history and types of treatment may influence these plans in both disciplines.

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In either habilitative or rehabilitative therapy, progress can be different for each patient in their specific type of discipline. The expectation or timeline of progress a therapist envisions when getting a patient to the desired outcome of improved quality of life may vary depending on the category in which that patient falls and the severity of their disability. Those engaging in habilitative therapy may take longer to achieve progress because they're learning something new.

The age of the patient can affect the potential for progress because they may respond to treatment more quickly. In contrast, some rehabilitative patients may see progress more quickly depending on their age or type and severity of injury or illness, as they were already familiar with the process of performing the function. Therapists can't measure progress with one definition in an individual discipline or among the two since it can differ drastically across patients even for the same condition.


While some patients may receive both habilitative and rehabilitative therapy over their lifetime, or even at the same time, generally the two disciplines serve different clientele. Children and teenagers and adults with differing abilities most commonly receive habilitative therapy to help them learn brand-new skills. In contrast, people of all ages, skill levels and backgrounds may use rehabilitative therapy. Older individuals, individuals who work in high-risk professions,  such as athletes who are prone to injury, or those with chronic illnesses may require rehabilitative therapy in particular.


Scientists who research habilitation and rehabilitation may use different data collection methods and resources. Although both topics relate to the brain and its pathways for learning and connection or plasticity, rehabilitative research may also have a deep focus on how the body works to uncover how it reacts to certain injuries and illnesses. Habilitative researchers may conduct studies about children before and after birth, how people with differing abilities respond to certain characteristics or stimuli and what causes developmental delays.

Related: How to Become a Clinical Researcher (Plus Duties and Skills)


Habilitative and rehabilitative therapy also have a variety of similarities, including:


Therapists can perform both habilitative and rehabilitative services in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient options. Inpatient therapies may take place in hospitals, nursing homes or other care facilities where patients live or stay for a determined length of time. Outpatient options can include therapists' offices, wellness clinics, schools or in-home care.


Habilitative and rehabilitative services both encompass the most common types of therapy: physical, occupational and speech-language pathology. Patients may receive one kind or a combination of several services.

Related: How To Become an Occupational and Physical Therapist


Therapists from all the major therapy disciplines can provide both habilitative and rehabilitative services to patients. While it's possible for therapists to specialize in either category, and in specific services, age groups or care requirements, many have the skills to offer both types in the course of their work so the same therapist can have training to provide both habilitative and rehabilitative therapy.

Related: 18 In-Demand Physical Therapy Jobs To Consider Pursuing


Therapists may use the same kinds of devices and technologies to provide both habilitative and rehabilitative services. Durable medical equipment (DME) are therapy devices someone can use at home to continue practicing what they've worked on during inpatient or outpatient treatment. In some cases, therapists give these items to patients and their families, and at other times medical insurance plans may cover the purchasing costs of devices like canes, crutches, braces or hospital beds. They may also include more advanced technology, such as breathing machines or cochlear implants, hearing aids and osseointegrated devices.

In-office or portable materials used in therapy sessions also work for both types of care. Things like treadmills, stair climbers, overhead slings, parallel bars, tilt tables, medical evaluation tools and other machines used throughout the course of inpatient and outpatient therapy benefit both habilitative and rehabilitative patients.

Target behaviors

The target behaviors of both rehabilitative and habilitative therapy are typically very similar. Therapists work to get people to walk, talk, listen, comprehend and function in a normal manner, despite differing purposes behind the actions.


In both habilitative and rehabilitative therapy, therapists work to improve a patient's quality of life. They hope to teach patients how to get through life as independently as possible with fewer inhibitors on their movements, communication and other functions.

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Types of habilitative and rehabilitative services

The three common types of habilitative and rehabilitative services include:

Physical therapy

Physical therapy is a medical discipline that helps people improve, restore or maintain movement or function in their limbs or extremities. Physical therapists are movement experts that work to improve a patient's quality of life through exercises, patient education and direct care by physically manipulating the patient's body. This type of therapy can improve abilities, movement and range of motion. Because of the nature of the exercises, physical therapy sessions are often interactive, with close contact and many hands-on experiences.

Related: 8 Types of Physical Therapy Specialties To Pursue

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapy is a medical and lifestyle discipline that aims to improve how people conduct everyday activities. It differs from physical therapy since it involves more aspects of an individual's mobility. A patient may receive both physical and occupational therapy together to meet certain goals or hit progress milestones. Some examples of occupational therapy activities include teaching or reteaching patients how to write, cook, climb stairs, dress and bathe.

Related: Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What's the Difference?

Speech-language therapy

Speech-language therapy, sometimes called speech-language pathology, aims to improve a patient's ability to communicate and use language. Subsections of this discipline include verbal communication, such as voice and sound production, early language skills, clarity, fluency and expression. It also includes communication processing techniques including comprehension and cognitive functions such as memory, attention and problem-solving.

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