Credentialing for Direct Support Professionals

Virtually every profession has a license, certificate or a credential. Social workers, nail technicians and barbers are all required to have a license to practice. A license, credential or certificate is actually one of the five elements common to all professions, along with a body of knowledge, universal skill standards, affiliation with a professional membership organization, and a code of conduct (ethics).

Sadly, direct support is not recognized as a profession. Many still consider it entry-level work, often found at the bottom of an organizational chart for human service agencies. This isn’t anything new—direct support work has historically received poor wages, little recognition and limited access to career ladders. Yet, to be an effective direct support professional, one must possess acute skills and sound judgment in a fast-paced and ever-changing environment supporting people with complex medical, psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.

Clarence Sundram, who serves as the Special Advisor on Vulnerable Persons to the Governor of New York, summarized the plight of direct support professionals (DSPs) best in a 2012 report when he wrote:

“[Direct support] jobs are compensated poorly, with many workers living at or near the poverty level or forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. One might summarize the job description of the direct support worker as requiring the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job and the caring of Florence Nightingale. While much is said about the value of these direct support jobs, the traditional hallmarks of value are often missing—qualifying credentials, adequate pay, career ladders, attention to working conditions, adequate training, managerial and supervisory support and so on.”

The National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) has launched the NADSP E-Badge Academy to recognize and celebrate the professional development of DSPs that might otherwise go unacknowledged. The Academy offers DSPs the ability to earn electronic badges as they demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and values on the job.

Furthermore, the NADSP E-Badge Academy offers powerful benefits to practitioners, their employers and the people they support. Direct support professionals benefit by learning and applying best practices and evidence-based skills and knowledge in the workplace, which leads to stackable certifications.  The organizations employing these DSPs can provide stronger assurances of quality to funders and families, and they can proudly market that they employ certified staff. People receiving supports from certified workers will have the advantage of partnering with highly trained professionals committed to supporting them using person-centered, ethical and effective interventions that they have mastered. Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that employees who complete rigorous credential programs stay on the job longer and provide a higher quality of support.

The ideological founder of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals, John F. Kennedy Jr., wrote in 1996, “Quality is defined at the point of interaction between the staff member and the person with a developmental disability.” In most cases you will find the direct support professional at that point of interaction. Shouldn’t we invest in DSPs’ knowledge, competency-based skills and professional values that lead to credentials and career ladders? I believe the national tide is changing and direct support professionals will be the next profession.

Joseph Macbeth

Executive Director, National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP)

Joe has worked in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities for 35 years, beginning as a Direct Support Professional. He is recognized as a national leader in the advocacy and advancement of the direct support profession. In addition, Joe partnered with the State University of New York (SUNY) to assist more than 500 DSPs advance their college educations through the Disability Studies Certificate. He currently sits on the boards of directors for The Learning Community for Person Centered Practices (TLCPCP) and the Council on Quality and Leadership (CQL), and he is a member of the Advisory Council for the New York State Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.

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