Frontline Initiative Professionalism

Recovering the meaning of "Professional"


Bill Gaventa is Coordinator of Community and Congregational Supports The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, The University Affiliated Program of New Jersey, UMDNJ

Are people in direct support roles really “professionals” and do we want them to be? As the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals works on recognizing and enhancing the pivotal role of direct support workers, one of the potential dangers we face is that we might try to enhance the role and status of the Direct Support Professional (DSP) in a manner that is based upon an outdated model. What does it mean now to identify oneself as a “professional,” especially in a world where roles between professionals, consumers, family members, and communities are changing? Is professionalism a matter of training and credentials, or is it something else?

In defining Direct Support workers as professionals we need to invite people not to emulate the worst stereotype of professional e.g., distant, quick with advice and diagnosis, obsessed with control, fiercely protective of position, privilege, power, and having all the answers. We need to create a new definition of professional or to recover an old one. The word professional has its roots in the word “profess,” and the act of “professing vows” (within a religious order). In fact, in a world of conflicting loyalties and allegiances, to profess vows meant to be very clear about one’s values and beliefs, and thus trusted because others knew where you stood. In this sense, to be professional is an affirmation of commitment and willingness to walk with others even when you don’t have all the answers. Said another way, the professional would not be the stereotypical know-it-all, but one who cares for another from a clear set of values, principles, and commitments, and can do so in many contexts.

That’s not easy. People and communities are incredibly diverse. DSPs need to carry out all the mandates, regulations, and programs of the greater systems while at the same time following the guidance of consumers and families in connecting people to natural supports and community life. They have to be willing to accept that the choices consumers make may not be the choices they would make.

It may be, though, that the role and challenges of “Direct Support Professionals” in fact call for our understanding of “professional” to change. That change may mean the recovery of the much older understandings of what it means to be “professional.” Recovering “professionalism” may mean recognizing and validating the sense of vocation and calling that, in fact, many direct support workers feel in their roles. It may mean developing strategies that recognize and enhance the commitment that many DSPs already demonstrate in their jobs. That commitment is nourished by acknowledging the incredible value of the DSPs’ role to others by opportunity to reflect on, and integrate the value base of that commitment, and by support through knowledge, training, and adequate compensation.

So as we talk about, and work on, “professionalism,” let’s be careful about what we ask for. Let’s recognize that it may be a quality many good direct support workers already have. What needs to change may be our understanding of what it means to be a “good professional.’’