Frontline Initiative: DSPs Using the NADSP Code of Ethics

Lessons Learned Along the Way


Lisa Burck is the associate director of The Arc of Mississippi in Gulfport, Mississippi. Lisa can be reached at

A professional woman poses with a framed certificate in front of an NADSP conference poster.

Author Lisa Burck poses with her DSP III certificate. Lisa was awarded the 2023 John F. Kennedy Award for Workforce Advocacy and Leadership.

I’ve met one person who set out to be a direct support professional (DSP): Joe Macbeth, executive director and CEO of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. The rest of us probably fell into it for various reasons, often thinking it as a temporary gig. Professions are not temporary gigs. The NADSP Code of Ethics are intended to guide DSPs through ethical dilemmas. They are a cornerstone of our profession. I’ve had to visit and revisit my guiding values and assumptions over the years, and I am compelled to share a few that I’ve had to revise as I’ve learned more:

Don’t block out the sun with your thumb: Supporting people’s goals and dreams

Have you ever noticed how the mighty and powerful sun can be obscured just by putting your thumb close to your face and obliterating it? We do that with people, too. We obscure goals and choices for people if we do not assume they are possible. We often ignore, judge, or condescend dreams that people express. Dreams and desires are usually not measurable, easily categorized, or always practical. But they are real. Someone might want to be an astronaut. Instead of dismissing becoming an astronaut as unobtainable, ask, “What appeals to the person about being an astronaut?” Finding out is step one. Books, museums, the internet, interviews, clubs, movies, and many other activities will help you figure out what is so great about being an astronaut. Along the way the person you support met people, learned a lot, became more included, and refined their dreams. Did the person become an astronaut? No. But only 14 people per year in the United States are chosen to be astronauts. Thousands of people are interested and choose to learn more and be a part of that world. And now, the person you support is a part of that world. For many people, the only world they were previously a part of was disability.

DSPs ensure whether a person is successful or not

Do you realize your power? Being an example is powerful. Yes, you mentor the people you support and other DSPs. But don’t forget the general public is also watching everything you do. You are a role model: Pay attention to your language (respectful words and tone) and your body language. Do you walk in front of the person you support? Are you handholding unnecessarily? Do you wear scrubs or clothes that set you apart from the person you support? Do you answer questions that should be addressed to the person you support? Many DSPs feel disenfranchised, meaning they lack power and control over many aspects of their own lives. Sometimes this means that DSPs may exert power over others to make up for the lack of authority in their own lives. Be mindful of your actions and the actions of others around you. Remember, the quality of a person’s day may depend upon who walks in the door and the kind of day they are having.

Minding our own business: The people we support are our business

When I was president of NADSP, I got a call one day about a fight club that had been discovered in a group home. Residents were forced to fight each other. The staff of that shift were arrested, convicted, and went to prison. Terrible, right? Worse was the fact that when the investigation was completed, there were dozens and dozens of DSPs fired because they knew and looked the other way. Ethical behavior should be the CULTURE of your work. Ethical behavior should be what you do regardless of whether anyone is watching. The NADSP Code of Ethics can help guide your actions and decisions.

Practice respect for people’s choices

We must behave intentionally, with thought and regard for others. For example, do we tell a person to get in the van without telling them in advance where they are going, why, when, and what their choices are? Christmas is a holiday celebrated by many people one day a year. Yet, we plan, we decorate, we remember other past celebrations, we cook, we prepare gifts for loved ones. It occupies my mind for weeks and months ahead of that one day. No one tells me to get in the living room and open presents. I have the luxury and dignity of anticipation. I must honor others by allowing them anticipation in their lives for their preferences and choices.

Know the person you support

Knowing is understanding. Without the whole story, you will repeat unsuccessful strategies, discourage trust, and invite frustration. I knew of a man who was deaf and blind. He was kicked out of many places. He landed in a place that vowed to figure him out. The behavior that got him kicked out every time was pouring water out of his shoes onto his bed almost every day. It was a fabulous DSP who vowed to know him and noticed that there was one day a week he did not pour water on his bed; that was the day he got clean sheets. She discovered he’d grown up in a notorious institution where he’d never had clean sheets, or even a mattress. The staff handed him seven sets of clean sheets a week and all was well. Pay attention to communication cues.

Enhance the profession

We all know we need more DSPs in the field. Do we invite others to the work? Do we speak of our jobs positively? Can we give examples of how we make life better for the people we support? Are we a shining example, proud of our work ethic and professional approach to the job? Do we think of ourselves as experienced experts or is this still a temporary gig? What do you enjoy about this work? Use this as a lead to describe what you do.

As direct support professionals, we can’t control the physical environment, the staffing ratios, or our pay, but I’m proud to say that we can still do what is right and improve the lives of everyone we touch. Now that’s power.

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