Over the past six years, I have had the honor of talking with more than 70,000 direct support professionals in a variety of settings, and surprisingly, many of them tell me that they don’t really need any formal recognition. They tell me that they feel a sense of deep personal satisfaction that comes from an internal source for helping others on their life’s journey. I suspect for many direct support professionals that this might be true, but everyone appreciates a look in the eye, a handshake or a hug and a heartfelt “thank you” from a supervisor, a family member or someone with a disability who is on the receiving end of a terrific direct support professional’s talent.
Since the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1970’s, the duties of the direct support professional has evolved from that of a caretaker or an attendant who merely provided coverage on a shift, to someone who is an integral part of a person life that provides comprehensive, person-centered support and shares a path toward a self-directed life for those with disabilities. The way others see direct support professionals has also changed during these forty years, and I believe that if we are going to continue sharing this path, then direct support professionals will have to become really good at connecting with community in all aspects of a person’s life – home, work, play and worship (if he or she chooses). As it says in the prelude to our Code of Ethics, “the whole landscape of a person’s life can change with the coming and going of these critical supports for people”.
The United States is in the process of reforming the larger task of the healthcare industry, which includes services for individuals with developmental disabilities. Through the untiring work of self-advocates, families, DSPs, service provider agencies, and public policy makers, a largely institutional care system has been turned on its head by developing a myriad of community-based supports and service options over the past four decades. Now we must demonstrate leadership by preserving and advancing the successes of the past by embracing the work of direct support as a profession and attracting new generations of men and women who seek it as a career.
So, if we are to really meet the needs of people with disabilities, direct support professionals will need much more than recognition. They are going to need to tools to be effective community builders, possess the skills to work without a supervisor standing next to them and understand their professional ethics to do the right thing when no one is looking.
How are we going to do this? By providing best practices training to all staff; embracing the use of technology that afford direct support professionals more time to spend working directly with the people they support; embrace, train and adhere to the Code of Ethics; advancing a voluntary, portable national credential as the gold standard of direct support practice; and collect and evaluate workforce data, such as retention and turnover rates, worker wages, benefits, and training so that they can monitor their progress, learn from their experiences, and continue to develop good workforce policy going forward.
If you want to learn more about me and the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP), please visit www.nadsp.org.