Frontline Initiative: DSPs Using the NADSP Code of Ethics

Why a Code of Ethics?


Joseph M. Macbeth is the president and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals. Joseph can be reached at

Two men with wide smiles and looking right at the camera. The man on the left utilizing a wheelchair with a computer mounted on his left side. He is wearing a dark gray pin-striped suit with a white oxford and gray tie. He has short brown hair. The man on the right is leaning in toward the other man, has shoulder-length brown hair, and is wearing blue jeans, a dark gray suit jacket, white shirt with a sweater, that has large diamond shapes that are grey, black, and white.

Joe MacBeth with friend Ed Bartz a few decades ago.

Virtually every profession is bound by a code of ethics or a code of conduct. Perhaps the best known is the Hippocratic Oath that doctors are required to follow. You’re all familiar with its primary tenet that a physician pledges to prescribe only beneficial treatments, according to their abilities and judgment, and to avoid causing harm. All doctors are required to understand and follow these guidelines.

A code of ethics is basically a written set of rules, principles, values, and expectations that any profession considers significant. NADSP’s Code of Ethics provides a framework and a standard for ethical decisions to guide your work. It also tells the people we support, their family members, and other external stakeholders what is valued by our profession. Of course, the effectiveness of any professional code of ethics depends on whether all practitioners follow the tenets and integrate them into daily practice. You can’t become ethical just by reading the code of ethics and signing it!

The effectiveness of any professional code of ethics depends on whether all practitioners follow the tenets and integrate them into daily practice.

So why are ethical standards important to a direct support professional? The preamble to our Code precisely provides the answer.

DSPs must exemplify ethical practice, high standards, and creative vision as they partner with those they support in order to access community and make everyday choices about their personal finances, physical well-being, social and intimate relationships, and employment. The entire landscape of a person’s life can change through ethical and intentional direct support services. As a result of these work duties, DSPs face ethical decisions daily and consistently feel the tension between the ideals of the profession and its practice. There are numerous pressures coming from organizations, government, social policy, and societal prejudice that can shift focus and allegiance away from the people who are being supported. To maintain the promise of partnership and respect that must exist in a supportive relationship, a strong ethical foundation is critical to help DSPs navigate through the maze of influences that bombard them.

Over the course of my 40-year career, I’ve witnessed, and committed, unethical behavior. I’d guess that most of us have at one point or another. In most of these examples, the direct support professional had the very best of intentions and certainly was trying to do no harm. Here’s two quick examples from my own career as a direct support professional. Trust me, I’ve reflected on these situations many, many times.

I was 22 years old and it was my first day on the job as a direct support professional. My mom dropped me off at the group home where I was assigned to work. As I nervously walked up the stairs to the home, I was confronted by my first ethical dilemma — although I didn’t know it at the time. Out of courtesy to the eight people who lived there, should I ring the doorbell and wait until someone invites me into their home? Or, since that’s my place of employment, should I walk in and introduce myself as the new guy? They didn’t cover this in orientation! What would you do? I walked in. It was unethical. No one, professionals included, walk into my house unannounced. Professionals ring the bell or knock on my door to announce their presence, and after they identify themselves, I let them into my home. The code of ethics sets the same standard for direct support professionals at work.

About six months later, my supervisor asked me to assist a man whom I supported to go to the mall to buy new clothes. I was happy and eager to do it. Let’s call the man, “Bill.” He was in his late 60s. I was in my early 20s. We had a lovely day shopping, had some lunch, and walked around the mall. When we returned to the house, I was proud of myself for helping Bill look great in his 501 button-fly Levi jeans, his red, high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers, and a tie-dyed t-shirt. In my role as a direct support professional, I used my considerable influence to encourage Bill to dress like me. I imposed my personal values onto a man 40 years older than me. Despite my good intentions, it was unethical.

I encourage you to reflect on your own career and find some examples where you did the same type of thing. Then read the NADSP’s Code of Ethics to see how you could have done things differently.

I think these two examples show why DSPs need a code of ethics – it’s easy to be unethical as a direct support professional. That’s why we need a compass or a road map to consult when we’re not sure of the right thing to do. You see, being a direct support professional requires us to set our personal beliefs aside and adopt the values of our profession. We elevate the role of the direct support professional when we all practice these values. Every day. All day.

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