Frontline Initiative Professionalism

I Consider Myself a Professional


Kent Ferris is a DSP for Owakihi Inc. in South St. Paul, MN

I have provided residential support to adults with developmental disabilities for five years and I consider myself a professional in this field. Prior to working in direct support, I had worked for a college in the student development department. I supervised student staff who lived and worked in residence halls. There was no question there that I was a professional. When I got my job in direct support, however, I discovered that many questioned whether or not one could appropriately call this new position “professional.” But, despite societal and my own prejudices about people with disabilities, I quickly learned that the students and the people with disabilities I supported wanted similar things, and that I could provide these in a professional manner.

One way I believe I was a professional for both groups was simply living out my commitment to providing continued care. As I had at the college, I persisted long enough so that those with whom I worked knew that I was going to be around for awhile. It took a year for me to feel comfortable that I knew the people I supported, and I believe it took them about that long to get to know me. Maybe a year gave them the sense that I wasn’t going anywhere for awhile. The revolving door experience, even in the best situations, can still be traumatic. I can say that my commitment to continuity of support is part of why I consider myself a professional.

Another aspect of my work that accentuates the similarities between my work experiences is that my skills transferred from one to the other. I had originally thought that this would be difficult, but as I mentioned earlier, my expectations about the difference between the two groups were founded on my inexperience in direct support. I quickly discovered that people with disabilities have the same wants and desires as everybody else. Everybody has issues of establishing his or her own independence, coping with roommates, balancing academic/ work demands with a need for a social life, and learning how to survive on a limited income. Realizing this, I found I could use the motivational techniques, knowledge of human interactions, creativity in posing new ideas about fun things to do, and money-savings strategies I had used on a college campus to support adults with disabilities as well. The transferability of skills alone warrants that we recognize direct support as a profession, and my willingness to transfer these skills across fields exemplifies a professional attitude.

My desire to improve myself through education and training further warrants that I call and recognize myself as a professional. When I was in student development, I read books and articles about my work, participated in field-related organizations and found ways to enhance my job performance by any means possible. When I moved to direct support, I did the same things. I went to the library and copied and read articles. I joined the American Association on Mental Retardation. I read books like No Pity, by Joseph P. Shapiro and The Road to Daybreak by Henri Nouwen to gain historical and non-traditional perspectives on direct support and those who have disabilities. With all this I began to take responsibility for my own development — and I continue to do so — and this too is part of why I now consider myself a professional.

The commitment to continuity of support, transferring skills and being responsible for my own development motivate me to operate in a professional manner. I think that these factors have allowed others to see me as a professional as well. Those whom I support appear to be appreciative of my commitment. Those to whom I report in the work organization have in turn afforded me some opportunities and have continued to allow me the latitude I need to be creative and develop new ideas. Hopefully others too, whether they are family members, social workers or other community members, come to know that what I do, I take very seriously. Maybe because I consider myself a professional, others do too.

My hope for those in direct support is that individual commitments can in turn be translated to common standards, which will allow all to see ourselves, and be seen by others, as the professionals we are.