Frontline Initiative Credentialing

If you Build It, They Will Come


Marianne Taylor is the Director of Grant Development at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Note: This is an edited version of Marianne Taylor’s article that first appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Frontline Initiative, before the NADSP built a national credentialing program. Now that the program is built, we need direct support professionals (DSPs) to “come” and use it.

Movie buffs will remember this line from the movie “Field of Dreams.” It referred to building a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield. When it was finished, the ghosts of past baseball greats did come and play ball at night.

For me, this line articulates what will be accomplished by the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals’ (NADSP) rigorous and relevant voluntary credentialing program for direct support professionals (DSPs) across the country. The NADSP credentialing program identifies what people must know and be able to do in order to be effective in supporting people in the community. Credentialing communicates best practices in direct support to the human service field and to society as a whole. The components of the NADSP credential program will serve as the foundation of the emerging profession, establish a professional identity for direct support, and drive the development of educational and training opportunities for those who wish to build and excel in careers in direct support. Furthermore, with access to the enrichment and recognition that results from earning a credential, people currently in direct support will “come” to a deeper understanding of their practice.

We visited with direct support professionals (DSPs) across the country while developing the Community Support Skill Standards, and they were unanimously in favor of earning a credential for the important work they do. When the 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.” Now, in 2006, the 32 affiliate chapters of the NADSP – with DSPs as leaders and advocates at the local level – approve of and are excited by the NADSP credentialing program.

The NADSP credentialing program will help people outside of human services see that direct service, like other professions, has a name as well as a body of skills, knowledge, and ethical principles. It will also provide us with a tool to market the role to prospective workers. “Direct Support Professional” will become a career track taught in school programs along with cosmetology, auto mechanics, graphic design, etc.

The NADSP credential will ensure that those who pursue it will learn the most important aspects of the work in programs of study and experience in school or through on-the-job training (OJT). What we currently teach DSPs on the job is mostly health and safety skills and those required by state regulation. The complexities of current best practices – such as facilitating community inclusion, supporting participant empowerment, and honoring dreams and preferences – are often neglected.

The NADSP credential will help DSPs feel valued and take pride in direct support. People will come to the profession because it is interesting and meaningful work. The NADSP credential can build linkages among secondary, postsecondary, and OJT classrooms, and people will “come” to the profession because they see clear and explicit career and educational paths with a promising future. In addition, the NADSP credential can improve the quality of support, and people with disabilities and their families will be confident that the people they must rely upon every day are well prepared to achieve desired outcomes. 

How is the NADSP credential built?

It is built with quality support and competency-based skills in mind. Here is a list of things to look for in a quality credentialing program:

Benchmarks of a Quality Credential Program

  • Competency-based – draws from a relevant validated set of competencies based on comprehensive job analyses
  • Transportable – parallel curricula and identical awards at different sites across the country
  • Guided by a coalition of stakeholders – educators, employers, employees, consumers
  • Accessible – cost, location, support
  • Articulates to other educational awards (AA, BA)
  • Adds value – higher wage, college credit, expanded career opportunities
  • Uses valid, reliable, fair assessments
  • Incorporates a method of revising standards
  • Calls for periodic recertification/ renewal

From Dreams to Reality

In the past, we’ve had unfair expectations of DSPs. We asked staff to facilitate change by embracing new approaches to support but we did very little to prepare them to become competent in these newly defined ways of working. We invested in “case managers” and “service coordinators” to do this work, which added more layers of bureaucracy, distant from the day-to-day lives of the people we support. Then we wondered why it was so expensive and so hard to help people get closer to their dreams and achieve the outcomes they desired.

It is simply unfair to expect DSPs to master the complex best practices of the new century without providing them with the appropriate educational tools to take on such challenges. It is time for us to face the reality that it is also disrespectful to people with disabilities and their families to ask them to share their dreams and believe in community inclusion without providing them with the support necessary to help make their dreams come true.

We are very excited about the transformation we are creating as we seek to blend natural and paid support, and to work in highly individualized frameworks where individuals with disabilities direct their lives. NADSP has built the credentialing program; now we need DSPs to come and participate