Frontline Initiative: The Diverse Voices of Direct Support Professionals

The Day-to-Day Experiences of a Deaf DSP


Karen L DeBartolo is a DSP4 at STEP in Sacramento, CA. Karen can be reached at

One woman with brown hair worn up, with pink top and dark sweater, and gray face mask with the woman she supports, who has short light brown hair, wearing a cream color top with light pink and green flowers and branches

Author, Karen DeBartolo posing with Amy, a woman she supports

To walk in the shoes of a direct support professional (DSP) is challenging every day. I have worked as a DSP for nine years. No day is planned out or expected to be a perfect day. We arrive to our employers’ homes expecting the unexpected. The challenging part is making sure our employers are having the best quality life they deserve and always make sure they are supported, which sounds easy but is not. By the way, we do not call the people we support “client.” We call them “employers” because we work for them.

As a DSP, I support the Amy’s medical appointments and other personal appointments. I support her as she plans her week including transportation for each appointment. Sometimes the plans all fall into place and work out smoothly, sometimes they fall apart and have to be changed. It can sometimes be hard to explain to Amy why the original plan has to change. If she is upset with the change in plans, then I work with the employer to make a plan that they are happy with. If she is happy and satisfied, then I am happy and satisfied. If Amy is sad, then I have empathy for her and I feel sad too. Really getting to know the employer helps me understand their wishes and wants, as well as how they are feeling. By doing this I show that I care. I also support her by helping her to make sure her home is clean. My view on this is I will treat Amy’s home the way I treat my home. I treat Amy’s home with respect.

The hardest part right now is shortage of staff. We really do need more highly-skilled DSPs that have a big heart and lots of patience for this position. My favorite quote is "Put yourselves in the employer’s shoes". If it were the other way around and I needed support, how would I like to be supported? To apply for this job because of for money, will not work and will not provide the person supported what they need to have a successful quality of life. To be a successful DSP you have to love working with people and supporting them live the life they want to life. DSPs need to learn not to worry about how long the person supported is taking to answer a question, to ask a question or even if they forget what they wanted to say. This also applies when the person supported is doing day to day things grocery shopping. They may shop at a so slow pace than you do and that is okay. We need to follow their pace and not our own pace.

Being a DSP is a very rewarding job for me. I could not even ask for a better job. I am deaf and so is my employer. We are able to communicate by using ASL. Her preference for her staff to know at least some sign language so she can communicate with them at any time without getting frustrated.

Being a DSP is a very rewarding job for me. I could not even ask for a better job. I am deaf and so is Amy my employer. We are able to communicate by using ASL. Her preference for her staff to know at least some sign language, so she can communicate with them at any time without getting frustrated. I love it when hearing DSPs work with deaf employers, as long as they can communicate with the person. If a DSP works for a deaf employer and does not know American Sign Language (ASL), the person supported is the one who will suffer the most in the end because they are not able to communicate with the DSP. Having a hearing DSP work with a deaf employer does has its good points, like going to medical appointments or anywhere else. The DSP may interpret for the person they support. For a deaf DSP, it is hard when the ASL interpreters do not show up for appointments. In that case, I communicate by using an iPad or writing on paper to the provider for Amy's appointment. It works but is cumbersome and not as fluid as a conversation with a person. There are different advantages for a deaf employer when they have either a hearing or deaf DSP. If there is no access for the person supported to communication, then they will be the one who suffers the most by not getting their needs and wants met. I communicate in ASL with Amy, and we both benefit from this since we know each other well.

Two women standing in a home office using American Sign Language to talk to each other.

Karen and Amy discussing the plans for the day.

The hardest part of this job is the pay is still low and DSPs are working so many hours. And this takes us away from our family time. We have to leave our personal schedule behind and work around the employer's schedule. It's hard for me and other DSPS who work so many hours because we fall behind on our personal lives and schedules. It's also hard to find a backup staff to work if I or another DSP need to go for an appointment or take a day off. This is especially hard to keep personal commitments and family time if working more than 5 days a week. DSPs have to learn how to juggle work and our private life.

I do hope that all DSPs can get raise in the near future. We are still fighting for the public and our elected officials to know who are as DSPs, the complexity of the skills we use every day in our work and that we are in a staffing crisis. We need to be heard. Everyone needs to hear our voices and stories because the employers we support rely on us every day. Rather than asking, "What is a DSP?", we want people to say, "I know what a DSP is and what a DSP does". We want to be heard and recognized all over the world.

Even though it's tough being a DSP, I have experienced many great moments. For me the job never has a dull moment. I always keep in mind why I am doing this work and to smile every day.