Frontline Initiative

Lessons in Life:
An Education in Customer Service


Ed Turner is training associate at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Supported Employment in Richmond, Virginia

Perhaps you’ve heard the terms customer choice and customer-directed services and have wondered how they affect the DSP. A direct support professional must become skilled in communication, which is essential to understanding the customer’s needs. There’s no doubt that communicating with some people will be a challenge. This doesn’t diminish their right to be heard and choose services. The DSP must be creative and find ways to understand and be responsive to their needs and wants.

Using “people-first language” when working with people with disabilities in one way of recognizing who is the customer. By using people-first language the focus is on the individual and not his or her disability. It’s a reminder that they’re people, not merely “clients” or “patients.” Some examples of people-first language include:

  • People with mobility problems
  • Person with a speech impairment
  • People with visual impairments

Above all else, talk to, not at or about your customers. Rather than trying to “fix” people with disabilities or solve our problems, the DSP should involve us in making decisions about service delivery. I’m a fifty-one year old man with cerebral palsy and average intelligence, and I’ve yet to meet a provider who has been able to fix me.

Failing to communicate, not using people-first language, and trying to fix rather than support people can have negative results. Expectations drop, which can become a barrier, or hostile relationships can develop which inhibit positive growth of the relationship between the DSP and the person receiving supports. The following are guidelines that can help establish a good working relationship:

  • Look at the person when talking and give him or her your full attention.
  • Make every effort to listen and to understand what the person wants or needs.
  • Consider people as people first, then as decision-making customers second and as consumers of services.
  • Keep your expectations high and believe the person can know his or her own capabilities.
  • Communicate directly with the person even if they’re accompanied by a parent, case worker, or an attendant.
  • Be courteous to the person.

These guides are fundamental ways of respecting the dignity of people with disabilities. They help establish a new partnership where both the provider and the customer work together for the same interest. This way of doing business can be challenging, but the rewards will be gratifying to all.