Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

Attributes of a Profession for Direct Support Professionals


John Raffaelle is the director of Educational Services at the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. John can be reached at​​​

John Raffelle

Social work was still a relatively new profession in 1957. There was often debate as to the efficacy or reason for having social workers. In July 1957, Dr. Ernest Greenwood, Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of California, Berkeley, published an article that stands the test of time and is still relevant in 2020. The article was called, “Attributes of a Profession.”   Greenwood made the point that social work  had all the standards and attributes  of a  legitimate professional practice. He outlined the five attributes of a profession. They are the attributes of direct support. Let’s review.

A body of knowledge

 Every profession is  based on continuously-improving, research-based, evidence. The profession of direct support is no different. As we have learned more, the services have improved. There is a vast body of knowledge available to Direct Support Professional.  The College of Direct Support, Relias Learning, Open Future Learning, and  many other research and accredited educational programs offer direct support professionals (DSPs) a body of knowledge. A body of knowledge must constantly improve  and inform best practices.

Skills, competencies, and professional authority

Every profession has specific, universal, and portable competencies. The professional competencies are the tasks and obligations required by the profession. These skills and competencies are always based in research.  They are used to keep standardized expectations for a profession. In direct support, there are sets of competencies that have been created, researched, and validated by authorities such as the University of Minnesota. The National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals has  contributed a set of 15 competencies to the field . Another important aspect of competencies is that they are always being assessed. Through assessment they are continually improved. Competencies can evolve just as a body of knowledge evolves.

Code of Ethics

All professions have a code of ethics. Take for example, medicine. All physicians must  take the Hippocratic Oath,  which states, “As a physician I will first do no harm.” An ethical code  is a guide for when a professional question has no definitive answers. DSPs have had a Code of Ethics for 20 years. The NADSP Code of Ethics includes 9 tenets (or parts) to guide DSPs when they are unsure of how to support a person.

A community of practice and professional culture

Trade and professional associations are vital parts of the establishment of a profession. We are likely to have heard of the American Medical Association, The National Association of Social Workers, The American Psychological Association, and the American Bar Association. These are all national membership communities of professional practice. These organizations promote best practices and review literature. They host conferences and educational events for their  members. DSPs have the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals . This is a membership, community-of-practice organization that does all of the activities mentioned earlier. These activities enhance the recognition and quality of DSPs in North America.

Credentialing (as determined by authority of the community)

Licensing, credentialing, and certification are all levels of permission granted by a professional sanctioning and/or certifying authority. Many states use their Departments of Education or Professional Licensing Boards to survey and allow for professionals to practice. Nurses, medical doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, and others may not legally practice the profession unless they have received the required education and passed the tests prescribed by the professional authority. Direct support has certification and credentialing programs. At this point, there is no formal license or credentialing requirement needed to practice direct support.  Organizations like the NADSP are pushing for reform. In order to practice direct support, there will eventually need to be such credentialing requirements. It is the one attribute of these five where we still lag behind.

For over 60 years, Greenwood’s framework for what constitutes a profession stands solid. As we map these five elements or attributes to the field of direct support, we see that DSPs are underrecognized when compared with other professions. One of our next steps includes establishing a standardized occupational classification for the direct support profession that becomes recognized by the United States Department of Labor. When the field has this classification, it will become easier and more effective to lobby for better wages, certification, and overall recognition of the  direct support profession. If you have not already familiarized yourself with the professional resources available to you as a DSP, please take some time to do so.

  • Greenwood, E. (1957). Attributes of a profession. Social Work, 2(3), 45–55.