By Eric Gordon

Note: Direct Support Professionals work side-by-side with our individuals with developmental disabilities to make sure that they have the opportunity for the most abundant life possible at home and in the community. Mr. Gordon looks at how Lutheran Family Services has helped the people who do this challenging work learn and grow. Over the last two years, these important staff members have gotten a new title, learned new skills and embraced a new vision of what they can accomplish. And, best yet, our individuals have a nurturing champion at their side as they interact with their communities.

Direct Support Professional (also known as DSP): a term evolved from the position formerly and commonly known as direct care staff.

  • Direct, the only remaining word from the original phrase, connotes the “straightforward and face to face” positioning of this particular employee with the clientele served.
  • Support, a newer development, indirectly suggests the empowering nature of the position to allow for the clientele to achieve as much on his or her own, with the DSP filling in whatever support is needed to achieve the goal.
  • Professional relates directly to the empowerment and evolution of the position itself.

Prior to this evolution, staff serving our clientele would be expected to do little more than “sit” with them and make sure no harm came to them. Recent developments have allowed and encouraged professional development for those in this role. This position requires adaptive skills, flexibility, open-mindedness, as well as a fearlessness in the face of difficult situations. As with other Medicaid-funded positions, the rewards for doing the work are often less monetary than spiritual. Warning: do not try this at home!

An example to illustrate:

One of our individuals is a 22-year-old male, having recently aged out of high school. The client is approximately 5’3” and weighs approximately 250 pounds. This person does not often speak, other than making sounds, and communicates mostly through gestures. He is not fully aware of his physical prowess, so even friendly gestures can sometimes bring with it some unintended threat of injury or damage. Sometimes, this person bumps into things and may tip them over, causing property destruction.

Previous expectations of a direct care staff might have been along the lines of ensuring that he stays away from others so as to not put others at risk, as well as making inferences as to what he might be trying to tell others and speak for him in instances where there might be confusion. The direct care staff might even want to avoid these situations altogether so as to not frustrate the client.

Expectations now are that the DSP not only spend time looking out for this person’s physical well-being and that of others, but to also be sure to look out for the individual’s emotional well-being: to integrate that person into the community rather than avoid situations. A DSP is now expected to offer the individual s/he supports opportunities that place him or her in a position squarely in front of others, while maintaining confidentiality, and be there to support, anticipate, and redirect the events so that the individuals s/he is supporting has a successful interaction or outcome with others in the community. If the individual is physical in nature, then teach him or her ways to be respectful of other’s space. If others are around, be sure to provide opportunities for the individual you are supporting to engage with them so as to communicate and ensure others are aware of the wants and needs the individual is making known to them.

Ultimately, the intent is for there to be a mutual understanding that takes place so that the individual being supported becomes understood within the community and the individual takes into consideration the understanding of the community. It becomes a more reciprocal relationship, helping both parties live the most complete and abundant lives possible.

Mr. Gordon is regional manager for the Roanoke developmental services program of Lutheran Family Services. He has worked in the developmental services field since 1989, including having worked in three states. In his free time, he keeps busy with his four children and can often be found watching their baseball and softball games around the Roanoke Valley and beyond.