Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

Growing Professionally is a Choice


Dianne Hartson is a DSP-1 at Black Hills Works in Rapid City, SD. She can be reached at

Diane Hartson

My name is Dianne Hartson and I have been a Direct Support Professional (DSP) at Black Hills Works (BHW) for almost 8 years. Prior to that, I spent 28 years working in the restaurant industry, until one day a customer encouraged me to apply at BHW. I did not know much about the organization, but decided I needed a change. I am grateful that this customer encouraged me to apply. I found my purpose when I joined this organization.

Like many DSPs, this work resonated with me personally. I wanted to be a part of empowering others to make choices. Choices that weren’t always available to those we support. Choices that weren’t available to Viola.

Viola was born in 1941, in the small town of Beloit, Iowa. She was the fifth child out of six children in her family. The state of Iowa deemed her parents unfit to raise their children, and all the kids were removed from the home. Three daughters eventually were adopted, but Viola and her sister Ruth were diagnosed as mentally disabled and placed in the Glenwood State-Hospital School, located in Iowa. Viola was not offered any form of education. Instead, she was tasked with helping the younger children in the school. She left the institution at the age of 18 not knowing how to read or write. Viola was not given a choice. Just before her twentieth birthday, Viola married a man 15 years older than her. Viola wanted to marry someone else, but her mother arranged this marriage instead. Viola did not have a choice. Within five years Viola had two children. Viola’s sister-in-law decided that Viola was not capable of raising children. She took it upon herself to remove the children from Viola’s care. Eventually the state of Iowa took over and placed the children in foster care in Fairfield, Iowa. They remained in foster care for five years. Again, Viola did not have a choice, but this time she was able to advocate for herself. Viola eventually won custody of the kids. They moved to South Dakota to raise them.

Viola was my mother. Her story inspires me because despite the many obstacles she faced, she persevered. She raised two children. Her story inspires me to advocate with those whose voices are not heard. It inspires me to help them speak up and be empowered to choose how they want to live their lives.

Even as Viola’s child, I still had a lot to learn about advocating with those we support. When I started on this career path, I was pretty “green.” I started the job with my own biases. I made the same assumptions that a lot of people tend to make. For example, I thought that the people I supported must go to bed at a certain time or they had to follow a certain schedule. Through education that was, and still is, offered by my agency, I learned to challenge my own assumptions. I learned to shift my mindset. Professional development takes time and reflection. It has been enhanced through training opportunities.

One area of training that has made a significant impact is person-centered thinking. Person-centered thinking not only puts the person’s needs and wants at the forefront of the supports I provide, it allows for people like Gary (not his actual name) to create natural supports in their community.

Gary participated in the “Out and About” program at BHW. Each month, community activities are scheduled, and people can sign up for activities they are interested in. Names are then drawn at random for people to participate. A few times, Gary was picked to attend “Monday Night Football” at a local bar. He enjoyed going to Monday night football and some of the other activities, but was disappointed each time he was not picked to attend. One day Gary asked me to support him going to the bar to watch football. Gary decided to invite his roommates and some friends. I supported everyone going to the bar for supper and football. Everyone enjoyed this and we started doing it every Monday night. The same waitress served the group every Monday, and came to remember what flavor soda everyone liked. The group even pitched in and purchased a Christmas present for her one year. Gary and I continued to go to Monday Night Football for the rest of that season and again for two more seasons. In this simple example, Gary had a choice. My role was to support him in that choice.

Although the example was simple, this work can be challenging. I must continue to learn, reflect, and shift. Through my training and participation in BHW and NADSP’s credentialing and E-Badge program, my eyes have opened to a whole new level of what being a DSP is all about. I learned how critical and powerful the NADSP Code of Ethics are in guiding our work. I learned that my job is about the people I support, not about me. I learned that Open Future Modules are a powerful tool and I have used this information to help others. I feel this on-going learning helps DSPs to build professional knowledge, skills, and abilities. The certification program motivated me to encourage and help people who I support come up with ideas to enrich their lives. It taught me to think “outside the box” when obstacles get in the way of peoples’ goals.

I have chosen this field, and to continue to challenge myself and grow professionally. I have chosen to support others in having choices. And I am grateful to Viola for showing me how important it is that everyone has this right.