Frontline Initiative Changing Roles

Direct Support Empowerment:
The Key to Effective Person-Centered Organizations


Jacquelyn B. Blaney, MSW is the Executive Director of Independent Living, Inc. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Many self-advocates, families and professionals have utilized person-centered planning as a tool in developing quality supports for people with developmental disabilities. Independent Living, Inc. began its evolution toward a person-centered organization in 1990. The Independent Living, Inc. staff responded to person-centered training with excitement and enthusiasm, developing a shared vision of inclusive and supportive communities. 

The culture of Independent Living, Inc. is similar to a nurturing family. The majority of the DSPs, managers and administrators are African-American, many belonging to the same social organizations, churches, and community clubs. The culture lends itself to open communication and mutual respect. In addition, the history that is shared by the African-American staff supports a high level of commitment to the mission of the organization. The staff have personal knowledge of the challenges and benefits of self-determination and community membership. 

After many years of a commitment to person-centered supports, we took a critical look at quality outcomes and discovered limited effectiveness in supporting meaningful community membership experiences. There were examples of community membership, such as Dorothy, who despite a life-long label of severe mental retardation, had become a member and equal participant in her church beautification club, and Rita who got the job of her dreams at age 45. However, these examples did not represent typical life for most of the persons we supported. Life for most continued to be of isolation and friendlessness.

 Our key challenge was to reorganize in a way that would be more likely to deliver the outcomes of community membership. The core organizational change was redefining the role of Direct Support Professionals (DSPs). DSP roles had to become more active, more empowered and more supported as the key person-centered thinkers of the organization. We promoted this change by developing two selfdirected work teams comprised primarily of DSPs: SPAN (Support Professionals’ Action Network) and LaCumba (Louisiana’s Community United Membership Building Alliance).

Using the self-directed team structure gave DSPs the necessary authority to take action, gain access to the resources of the organization, and provide accountability for outcomes. The primary role of managers on the team was to provide support. The teams took direction from the identified mission of the group. The selfdirected team structure encourage DSPs to use and value personal skills developed through life experiences.

The LaCumba, (a Swahili word meaning “the heart of our community”) team has as its mission the promotion of community membership for persons with disabilities. The team is made up of staff who are interested in the mission and who themselves are active in their communities. The DSPs brought to the team an extensive knowledge of their community. The project identified community leaders and asked them to take an active role in developing and implementing a plan to bring citizens with disabilities into full community life.

After each meeting with community leaders, the LaCumba team met to implement the strategies developed. This follow-up phase required DSPs to act as connectors and facilitators rather than as skills trainers, a role so often associated with direct support. DSPs state that these new roles are much more rewarding and support more meaningful results. Six of the eight persons participating have been connected with membership opportunities supported by a community leader. 

SPAN, the second DSP work team, has as its mission: To support each other emotionally and professionally. The SPAN team surveyed all employees and used the results to prioritize activities. The need for peer support and employee recognition were listed as high priorities. The team developed mentors who offer training and technical assistance to employees who request it. Peer support is also offered in the form of social activities and informal gatherings. All new hires are given the names of the SPAN steering committee along with phone numbers and an invitation to participate in activities.

Although the use of self-directed work teams is relatively new to Independent Living, Inc., the success of the teams is undeniable. Such success is due to the empowerment of DSPs along with the shared values dictated by person-centered thinking. The team allows direct support professionals to draw on their individual a cultural consciousness to build toward better communities for all.