Frontline Initiative Dual Diagnosis

Active listening and respect. How to honor a person's strengths and space


Laurel Rose Deans is a self-advocate for the New Mexico Center for Self-Advocacy

The first thing someone notices about me is my beautiful smile. It lights up the room. The next thing people notice about me is my self-determination. I have led an interesting life! I have visited other countries. I have taken col­lege classes in sign language and massage therapy. I completed a 45 credit hour certificate in child­care. I dance in a local company, Keshet. I own a car that I use to drive to work, appointments and fun activities. I even own a unique pet, an African Grey parrot that talks and keeps me company. I also work part-time for the local ARC. I still find time to enjoy the beautiful outdoors of New Mexico with family and friends.

I have a strong and supportive family that helps me achieve and maintain a satisfying life. I recently moved into my first apartment after living in a group home for some time. I also have some formal support from direct sup­port professionals (DSPs) of a local agency. They help me keep track of my medications and my apart­ment. Importantly, they support my participation in the commu­nity.

Given my wide range of life experiences, I have learned what helps me be successful and what doesn’t. The most important thing a DSP can do when providing sup­port for someone with a devel­opmental disability and another diagnosis is to listen. Listen first and act second. It is important for a DSP to first ask each individual about his or her goals; then spend time getting to know him or her before doing anything else. This will get the relationship off to a good start. It will help make sure the support provided is focused on the needs of the individual.

It is important to keep listening even after a DSP begins working with a person with dual diagnosis. The individual being supported may be feeling more anxious on some days than others. When that happens, the DSP needs to be willing to change plans. This means adjusting the assistance provided to meet what the person is experiencing. On some days, I just don’t feel like going out and doing things. It is important for the DSP to honor that and be flex­ible. The DSP should also watch to see if suggestions or directions are overwhelming the person be­ing supported. It is important for the DSP to slow down and let the person being supported have time to think and process.

Another tip I have for DSPs working with people with dual diagnoses is to respect peoples’ personal space. This includes things like hugging someone (ask first, please!) or touching and rearranging peoples’ personal things without permission. This is especially important to me since having personal space is one rea­son I wanted to move out of the group home. Understanding how important this issue is and respect­ing a person’s space can reduce anxiety and make things go more smoothly.

Active listening and showing respect for a person’s personal space are essential components for a positive relationship between a DSP and an individual receiv­ing supports. Honoring his or her unique talents and interests will serve to strengthen that relation­ship, making it a good support experience for everyone.