Frontline Initiative Credentialing

The Tennessee Community Rehabilitation Agencies' Credentialing Program


Jill Jackson is a credentialed DSP at Hilltoppers Inc. in Crossville, TN

Just recently, I met someone who asked me what I do for a living. I began to explain my job and this person interrupted, asking, “Yes, but what is your title?” I told her I have several titles including Job Coach, Employment Specialist, Program Manager, and Agency Support Coordinator, but the title that means the most and describes my job the truest is Direct Support Professional (DSP).

Later, as I was thinking of what being a DSP means to me, I recalled reading one article in the Fall 1999 issue of Frontline Initiative. It said that the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) is working to “increase access to competency-based training, higher education, and career mentoring of all direct support staff,” and to “acknowledge and reward qualified staff.” It further states that it is “certain that in the future the role of direct support workers will be expanded." 

This is exactly what the Tennessee Community Rehabilitation Agencies’ (CMRA) Credentialing Program is about. The role of the DSP is expanding and changing as people continue to leave institutions, and new concepts such as circles of support, visions for the future, and organizational redesign take hold. Though provider agencies may provide a certain amount of training for all DSPs, a credentialing program like ours goes much deeper than what time allows for in individual agencies. Funded by the State of Tennessee Division of Mental Retardation Services, the 60-hour training program includes 10 core competency areas that are necessary for DSPs to fully apply themselves in their work. The competency areas are: Community Resources; Health and Safety; Introduction to MR/ DD; Personal Facilitation; Philosophy and Rights; Professional Development; Rules and Regulations; and Values, Concepts, and Practices. Graduates from the program receive an official certificate, Credential in Community Support, issued by the State of Tennessee. In addition, they receive letters of support and commendation from the Tennessee Governor Don Sundguist and President Clinton, a subscription to Frontline Initiative, and a one-year membership in the American Association of Mental Retardation (AAMR). Also, CMRA holds retreats for all graduates to promote professional development. These retreats have been well attended and reviewed by participants. 

The first CMRA credentialing class graduated in August 1998. As one of the proudly credentialed DSPs of that year, I have been actively involved in evaluating the effectiveness of the program. Many favorable reviews have been received. Credentialed DSPs, regardless of their actual job descriptions and duties, feel better prepared to meet any challenges that may arise during the course of their employment. They also report higher self-esteem after having gone through the training. One credentialing graduate said, “It [the program] helped me solve problems and re-think the language I used when speaking to clients. I now know the importance of using people-first language.” Another stated, “We had open discussions with our trainer and our coworkers. This proved to be very helpful to me, better than just learning from books.” Yet another said, “[We] learned from co-workers in other positions and gained more of an understanding about their roles at the agency. [They] developed a ‘team spirit’ as they went through the training together.” Ronnie Broach from Carroll County Developmental Center, who has a B.A. in sociology said, “I feel more professional and I am seen that way by others.”

The CMRA credentialing program has definitely been seen as a plus to all who have completed training so far. All of the graduates that I interviewed said they would recommend the program to any employees, those new to the field or seasoned veterans — because of its breadth and depth. CMRA has tracked all of its graduates and maintained a file on promotions and turnover. There is a much lower rate of turnover among graduates than those who haven’t been credentialed. Many credentialed DSPs have been promoted as a direct result of their training. I am very proud to be part of the program and hope that more and more people will understand and appreciate the value of the credentialing efforts in our field.