Frontline Initiative: The Diverse Voices of Direct Support Professionals

Being a DSP in Rural America


Nicole Godbey and Cheryl Carter work at PAKS Developmental Services in Ogallala, Nebraska.

Ariel Knosp works at Southwest Area Training Services in McCook, Nebraska.

As interviewed by Frontline Initiative co-editor Julie Kramme.

Ariel view of a small town and surrounding farm land in the evening at sunset, baseball field with lights on and people playing ball, the town is about 5 blocks long times 5 blocks wide, with two highways coming into town near the grain elevator.

Being a direct support professional (DSP) has its perks and challenges in any context, but being located in small towns is a unique experience. It is one way in which DSPs have diverse experiences of providing home and community-based supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Julie Kramme, who is co-editor of Frontline Initiative, interviewed three DSPs who provide job and community living supports for people in rural Nebraska to learn more about their experiences.

Young woman with long dark hair, dark eyes, and a black shirt with the words Nebraska Strong and a heart on a red image of the state of Nebraska

Author, Ariel Knosp

Ariel Knosp works at Southwest Area Training Services (SWATS) in McCook, Nebraska, a town of about 7,400 people. She supports people who are seeking employment by teaching job skills. Nicole and Cheryl provide supported employment and residential supports for several older adults with IDD at PAKS Developmental Services in Ogallala, a rural Nebraska town with a population of about 4,800 people. Both towns are several hundred miles away from a larger urban area. The DSPs got connected to their jobs by knowing others in their small, tight-knit communities.

Ariel was working at a daycare center when she learned about job openings at SWATS from Amy, the mother of a child she cared for and an employee at SWATS. Amy saw Ariel’s skills and heard her mention that she was looking for more challenging work. Amy thought Ariel would be a good at supporting people with IDD. She said, “I bet you’re going to love the challenge of being a DSP. It’s going to fit you.” That was the truth. This job is an excellent fit for Ariel’s interests and skills. Ariel has several family members who have significant disabilities. This helped her easily understand the importance of person-centered supports. “My job is about helping people to accomplish their goals,” she said. “It’s individualized to each person. We problem-solve together to figure out how to support the person to have the experiences and skills they need to find a job.”

Young woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing a tan top.

Author, Nicole Godbey

Nicole and Cheryl also learned about jobs at PAKS through community connections. After several years in this field, both feel that their colleagues are like family. “We support each other,” Cheryl noted. “When we need another DSP to help with a task, we help each other out.” Nicole left direct support for a few years but came back to PAKS after her kids went to school. One person she supports lives in the town where her kids go to school. Part of her role has been to pick up the person she supports in the mornings after she drops off her kids at school. She brings the person to PAKS and supports them be active in the community.

Nicole and Cheryl commented that many people in Ogallala know about PAKS and have worked for PAKS in the past. Sometimes this is a challenge because so many things have changed in the ways they deliver services in recent decades. People who worked at PAKS in the past assume that things are still the same, and they’re not. “When we are looking for opportunities in the community for people to volunteer or work, sometimes employers are more focused on peoples’ limitations rather than their strengths,” Cheryl said. There are still barriers in their thinking about the opportunities that people can have in work and volunteering. This can make it difficult for people to meet their goals. Nicole and Cheryl wish that there were other opportunities for new experiences, and they search consistently for new experiences for the people they support.

Finding a job in the community

A recurring theme in both Ogallala and McCook is that there are not enough employment opportunities for people who want to work. It is even a struggle for people to actively explore options for employment. There are a few manufacturing and assembly plants in the area where people can work, but outside of that, there are few opportunities.

There was an unfortunate story in Ogallala where a person supported found a job at a car dealership and worked there for quite some time. However, the employer decided that they couldn’t keep the person employed there. The person sometimes had seizures and the employer felt it was too risky. “This was really sad and discouraging,” Cheryl said. “Losing that job was hard to recover from.”

On a more positive note, another woman found a job with the help of Vocational Rehabilitation in childcare. Ariel was going to be her job coach, but it was working out so well at her job that the woman decided she didn’t need a job coach. Ariel said, “that’s the best; that’s what we like. People work us out of a job!” She hopes to see that more often with people she supports.

People around here know one another by name. If you get a reputation for anything, whether you’re a person with a disability or not, people will remember that, and will tell everyone else about it. It’s hard to stop the stereotypes and rumors.

Another issue in a small rural town is that people are easily recognized. “People around here know one another by name,” Cheryl said. “If you get a reputation for anything, whether you’re a person with a disability or not, people will remember that, and will tell everyone else about it,” she added. It’s hard to stop the stereotypes and rumors. Cheryl and Nicole sometimes wished their job had more opportunities for supporting people without disabilities to understand and know how to interact with the people they support. Nevertheless, being a DSPs is about community inclusion. Ariel emphasized, “When I take a person to do their errands or shopping or go to a basketball game at the college, people will sometimes ask me about my relationship to the person I am supporting. I tell them that I am their friend because there is less stigma attached to this than if I explain I am their DSP.”

Using transportation support to get to work

Many people come from longer distances to receive supports from PAKS and SWATS and to find a job. This means that people often need to learn how to use transportation services. In both towns, there are limited options for public transportation. Many people commute to work on an accessible bus. People call the bus service and schedule a bus ride to and from work. This can require extra coordination across DSPs who support the person at their home and the supports that Ariel, Nicole, and Cheryl provide. “We all try to come together in support of the person, and to be on the same page, but this can be challenging,” Ariel said. “It works best when we listen to the person we support and help them to make their own choices.”

In some cases, the lack of regular transportation services limits people to get where they need to go. One person who Nicole supported found a job a Walmart. Regardless of how many times the person communicated with their supervisor there, they kept getting scheduled for work at times when there were no transportation services available to get the person to work. Ultimately, the person had to leave that job because she couldn’t get there when she was scheduled.

“We do have compassion”

While there are challenges to living and working in small towns, there are also stories about people caring. One person that Nicole supports had a dental issue that was causing a lot of pain. Nicole supported the woman to a dental appointment, but they realized that she couldn’t afford the treatment needed. Nicole and the woman left the office, but fifteen minutes later the dentist called Nicole. The dentist asked if she could turn the car around. When the dentist heard that the person couldn’t afford the service but knew the pain the person was in, they did the service for no charge.

“We don’t always have the opportunities that bigger cities do, but we do have compassion,” Cheryl said. “We know one another and we’re willing to help each other out.”

In another instance, Cheryl said she and the person she supports were struggling to find a local provider who would accept payment from Medicaid. When they asked around, a provider in town agreed to do the service for a reduced rate but ended up not accepting payment for the service when the time came to pay. “We don’t always have the opportunities that bigger cities do, but we do have compassion,” Cheryl said. “We know one another and we’re willing to help each other out.”