Frontline Initiative

The Importance of Partnerships
Support is a Two-Way Street for DSPs and Consumers


Michael W. Smull is research assistant professor and director of the Community Support Unit, Center of Human Services Development, University of Maryland

Across the country, agencies that work with people with disabilities are struggling to change from putting people in programs to supporting people in the lives that they want. This change begins with learning to plan with people rather than planning for them. Many agencies struggle to learn what’s important to the people they support in order to help them move toward the lives they want. This must be done within the constraints of available resources and the presence of health or safety issues. As agencies continue to struggle with this conversion, they find they need to broaden their focus. They discover that people with disabilities can’t be empowered unless the people providing support are also empowered.

Many managers in agencies moving toward supporting people to create lives they want have discovered the power of partnerships. Rather than managers accumulating power, they’ve learned that the management practices that best encourage a support model require that the people delivering the support feel respected, trusted, and valued. Managers can’t just change the way they talk – they must also change the way they act. They have to change their agency’s practices to reflect the values that underlie these types of partnerships. The following are examples of this kind of partnership in action.

At Community Living–Wilmington, a supported living agency in North Carolina, the people who are supported and the people providing support mutually select with whom they will work. Neither the people receiving supports nor the people providing them need to have “cause” to terminate the partnership; however, team leaders are there to insure that a request doesn’t just reflect transient irritation and that the people being supported aren’t left without the support they need.

At a pubic provider agency in Manchester, England, efforts to build partnerships begin with staff exploring what’s important to them as well as to the people they support. A manager then facilitates the development of a plan where the staff seek to get more of what’s important for both the people they support and for themselves.

Some examples of this in action include changes in both schedules and responsibilities. Staff who are “morning people” have swapped coverage times with staff who are “evening people.” One staff member who attends a music club on her own time now takes someone she supports (who also loves music) to her club as part of work time.

At Hope House Foundation, a supported living provider in Norfolk, Virginia, these partnerships have been built over the past decade. This agency makes sure that before any policy or procedure can be adopted there are opportunities for all of the people effected to be heard. Staff who want to learn something that reflects their personal interests are supported with dollars that come from fund raising regardless of whether a direct benefit is perceived for those supported. The disparity between pay for managers and for direct support staff is also being narrowed.

Agencies are finding that partnership “pays.” Practicing partnership not only enhances the quality of life for those supported but also effects areas like turnover. Agencies like Hope House Foundation and Community Living report annual turnover rates that are close to ten percent as compared to the fifty to seventy percent reported by most agencies. If agencies are going to move from providing programs to providing supports, they’ll also have to learn to practice partnership between the people being supported and the people who provide supports. We can’t enhance respect for the people we support unless we also respect the people providing the support.