Frontline Initiative Credentialing

"If You Build It, They Will Come"


 Marianne Taylor is an NADSP co-chair and mother of a son with special needs

Remember this line from the movie Field of Dreams? It referred to building a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. When it was finished, the ghosts of past baseball greats did come — drifting out of rows of corn onto the baseball field for exciting night games. For me, this line has become a metaphor for what we might accomplish if we establish a rigorous and nationally recognized voluntary credential for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs).

Recently, I was asked to put one of my life dreams on hold, the full inclusion of my son in his kindergarten. I had to accept an interim program designed to help him get ready to be with the larger group. As a parent, I had few ways to know about the quality of support that my son would receive. I did, however, ask people about their credentials. I know there are limitations to credentials: they cannot assure me that my son will be loved, nor can they unequivocally ensure the competence of people who hold them. Still, I felt more assured knowing that the one-to-one aides hired by the school were certified teachers because it gave me an idea of their educational background and their level of commitment to their work.

For sometime, we’ve had unfair expectations of people doing direct support. We speak with great excitement about blending natural and paid support, and individualizing supports so that people with disabilities can direct the course of their own lives. We ask that staff facilitate change by embracing these new approaches, but we do very little to prepare them for these roles. We also ignore the potential of DSPs and invest in “case managers” or “service coordinators” to direct their work — adding more layers of people who are farther away from the lives of the people we support. Then we wonder why it is so expensive and why it is so hard to help people get closer to their dreams and achieve the outcomes they desire.

As part of my professional work, I was able to direct the National Skill Standards project for community support workers. When we visited with DSPs across the country while developing the Community Support Skill Standards (CSSS), they were unanimously in favor of earning a credential for the important work they do. When the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) adopted its slate of priorities in 1997, the DSPs at the meeting embraced the goal of developing a voluntary, national credential, stating “We want to be held to a clear and high standard.”

While evaluating a community college certificate program designed for teacher aides, I recently interviewed several program participants. They were delighted to be attending college paid for by their employer, and were applying what they had learned in college every day at work. Most were planning to stay in their jobs despite low income because they loved being with the children and felt that the program was helping them to be more competent. We need people like this who bring enthusiasm and skills to their work in community supports, and we cannot afford to lose them.

By identifying what DSPs must know and do to be effective in their work, a credential focused on direct support can communicate best practices to the human services field and to society as a whole. The components of the credential will serve as the foundation of the emerging profession, establish a cultural identity for the role of direct support, and drive the development of educational and training opportunities. If we build it right, it will ensure that people who pursue the credential will learn the most important aspects of the work in programs of study and experience in nearby schools or through job training. Most of what we currently teach people on the job covers the basic skills oriented to health and safety and required by state regulation. We need to convey the complexities of current best practices including facilitating community inclusion, supporting participant empowerment, and honoring dreams and preferences by offering learning opportunities with greater depth and challenge. 

If we build it right, people outside of human services will see that direct service, like other professions, has a name and a body of knowledge, skills, and ethical principles that comprise its identity. This will provide us with a tool to market the role to prospective workers. How is it possible that a young person can contemplate a career in human services if they have no information about the direct service role? If we build it right, young people will come because it is interesting, meaningful, and valued work.

If we build it so there are linkages among secondary, post-secondary, and agency classrooms, people will come because they see explicit career and educational paths that show a promising future. If we build it right, the quality of support will get better.

If we build it right, people with disabilities, their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers may find some comfort and assurance in knowing that the people they must rely upon every day are well prepared to achieve desired outcomes. Let’s build it so they will come.