Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

How I Talk About Direct Support as a Profession


Skylar Smith is a DSP-I at Black Hills Works in Rapid City, South Dakota. She can be reached at Skylar.Smith@

Skylar Smith

I have been a Direct Support Professional (DSP) for three years. I began this job as a part time college job and discovered a career I treasure. I have pursued credentialing and professional development through Black Hills Works, the organization where I work. When I tell people about my work, I often find myself explaining and defending the profession to others. Other DSPs find themselves in the same situation. The job is often misunderstood or not known about at all.

Choosing direct support as a career

There are several reasons I picked direct support as a career. The skills required to be a DSP are varied. I find the challenge exciting. DSPs bounce from being a companion, educator, medication administrator, and advocate, just to name a few roles. We take people swimming, teach cooking, and assist in cleaning and chores. The job varies day-to-day. There can be stressful situations. A DSP needs to be calm under pressure, or at least seem to be. These stressful situations are far outweighed by amazing moments. When I feel I have made a difference or just support someone to have a fun day, I get meaning from my work.

I often find that people treat me as a saint for doing this work. In some ways, being a DSP does require patience. So do many jobs. I find it important to share that I get so much out of the job too. I find purpose from it. I build relationships with those I support. The people I support often end up supporting me too. Sharing this perspective is valuable because I feel that viewing me as a very special person for doing my job is insulting to those I support. It suggests that they need so much patience beyond what working with someone without disabilities would require. I find that I need less patience for this job versus when I worked in customer service! As a DSP, I support people I know and can understand because I have built a professional relationship with them over time. In customer service, I assisted strangers.

Why should DSPs improve themselves as supporters? The quality of support we provide directly impacts the quality of life for those we support. Going above the minimum requirements of the job can build amazing memories. Lake trips are one such experience I have had. It required a fair bit of work to get the boat ready, everyone up to the lake, having appropriate staffing, and ensuring safety. This work was worth it for those who organized it. The memories made are still mentioned. I think the most important skill for a DSP is self-reflection. I have used this throughout my career to discover what I am now doing and how I can improve. My strengths and weaknesses impact how I work. I select trainings in areas that I don’t yet know enough about.

The organization where I work provides professional development opportunities and credentialing to become a better DSP. Credentialing offers similar opportunities to college while allowing me to work. The costs are covered by my organization, so I do not incur debt for pursuing education. The credentialing program includes classes on direct support, trainings on the job, and writing reflections about work. Even though I bring my college degree and DSP credentials to the job, my best teachers are those I support. I learn what works and doesn’t work in supporting that person. My coworkers also bring experience and care. They are also amazing teachers, especially those who have good relationships with the people I support. I can learn from them how they built that positive relationship and what worked for them. Credentialing also strengthens the argument that this is my career and not simply a job.

Talking with others about what I do for work

We DSPs serve as ambassadors, on or off the clock. When I tell others that I am a DSP, they often have no idea what that means. I explain it as a job where I support adults with developmental disabilities to live the lives they want. I find myself advocating for the profession in my everyday life. My conversations are influenced by my work experiences and professional development. I want others to see that my job is important. I want them to understand the rights of the people we support. I am not harsh during these conversations. Instead, I aim to gently broaden people’s perspectives. One way I do this is to share positive examples of successes and accomplishments of the people I support. Oftentimes, others in the community simply don’t realize what is possible. They don’t know what I know about people with disabilities: that when they receive high-quality support, so many things are possible.

A problem for many is that the general public doesn’t often interact with people with disabilities. Additional community involvement, as desired by the people I support, can solve this. Both in my personal life and my job, it is important to advocate that adults with developmental disabilities are, after all, adults. I am not perfect about this either, but I’m committed to learn and get better at this. Societal expectations can infantilize people with disabilities. I’m asked if we “let” or “allow” people to do things that would be considered a poor choice, but it is something that adults without disabilities would be allowed to do, without questions. This needs to change. Adults with developmental disabilities are adults; they should not to be treated as children.

How DSPs talk about our job is important. We need to emphasize that direct support is a career that requires respect. This affects how others view our profession. I am a DSP and I take pride in that.

How DSPs talk about our job is important. We need to emphasize that direct support is a career that requires respect. This affects how others view our profession. I am a DSP and I take pride in that. It is a humble pride that allows me the humility to grow and improve my skills. I hope you too take pride in your job.