My Time as a Direct Support Professional
When I was hired at Nishna Productions in January of 2019, my title was Development Specialist. I was to do marketing, public relations, fundraising, employee engagement, community events, etc. I love my job! Every day is different. I meet different people in different communities. I get to brag about all the cool stuff we do at Nishna Productions. I interact with those we serve and am consistently amazed by them. I am an advocate for the people we serve and for the services we provide.
When COVID-19 struck, my job changed – drastically. Most of the roles I filled as development specialist are not “essential.” Don’t get me wrong; long term, my role as a development specialist is important to Nishna Productions. In a time of crisis, however, our priority as an agency is the health and safety of those individuals receiving services and of the DSPs providing services. In a time when many non-essential workers were being laid off, Nishna offered the option for non-essential staff to become temporary DSPs. I was assigned to work four days a week at one of our twenty-five sites. That would allow me to work on my ‘regular’ job one day a week. I was given a crash-course of training and reported to my assigned residential site. (Disclaimer: I am NOT medication certified and do NOT handle any of the medication responsibilities)
You guys. Direct-care has been a truly eye-opening experience. I know I have promoted the work DSPs do. I’ve talked with DSPs; I’ve listened to their concerns and frustrations, to their joys and celebrations. But the adage is true: until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you can’t really know what it is like.
As a DSP, I have been cook, nursemaid, activity director, exercise coordinator, counselor, maid, sounding board, encourager, nag and friend to the individuals I serve. My shift covers lunch and supper, so I am often cooking for a large group of people. Sometimes they love what I make, sometimes not so much. I spend a decent amount of my shift disinfecting surfaces, cleaning a bathroom or two (or helping a resident do that), and/or assisting with laundry. I have long conversations with residents about the things they enjoy (ranging from 70’s music, Harry Potter, crafts and cooking), the things they miss (their friends, seeing their families, going to church), and the things they worry about (money, COVID-19, changes in staffing).
When left to their own devices, the individuals at my site will mostly stay in their rooms listening to music, watching TV or sleeping. How great does that sound, right? Show up, feed them, let them chill while you do paperwork, feed them again, finish paperwork and leave. That may be a great way to veg out for a day or two, but it isn’t really healthy for the long-term quarantine. And, honestly, that is not what most of the residents truly want. They want to be active, engaged, social, busy, and productive. Not to mention that doesn’t really add to their quality of life, and that should be one of the primary missions of any agency that serves individuals with disabilities.
That’s when being an activity director, exercise coordinator, encourager and nag come in. Each week, I put together a packet of “Boredom Busters” that was sent out to all our staff. I use most of them at the house at which I work. The boredom busters include crafts, science experiments, games, community connection ideas and recipes to try. After the second week, a few of the residents started asking me when I came in, “What are we going to do today?” They mostly don’t even care WHAT we are doing, as long as there is SOMETHING to do. Not every resident participates. Some activities appeal to certain residents more than others and that’s okay, because they absolutely have the right to make choices about what they participate in. A good DSP will continue to offer a variety of opportunities in an effort to engage all the individuals they serve.
As a DSP, I’ve discovered that the absolute worst part of the job is the paperwork. I get it. If we don’t do the paperwork properly, we don’t get paid. That doesn’t make it any easier. We document daily all the interactions we have with each resident. Our documentation must meet specific criteria, so it is reviewed by an auditor at our offices. If there are corrections to be made, staff get a little note on their documentation login to fix an entry. My first week, I had approximately 28 “fixes” to make. So, I went back and fixed them. I received about half of them back to fix a second time (in case you were wondering, a.m. and p.m. really do need to be included on all times). Documentation may never be my strong suite.
As an agency, we focus on person-centered plans. This means that our focus is on the person with the disability and their vision of what they would like to do in the future. In addition to deciding where they want to live and whether or not they want to work, each resident is an active participant in writing their goals. Most residents have four to six goals covering life skills such as cooking, exercise and hygiene. Each goal needs to be run each day and that must be documented, as well.
By necessity, unfortunately, paperwork is a large part of a DSP’s job. I knew that going into this. What I wasn’t prepared for is how much the residents became “my” residents. Their worries have become things I try to find solutions for – even when I am not at work. Their successes have become things I celebrate. The things that frustrate them frustrate me. They have become part of my heart.
I am not the only DSP to feel that way. One DSP has told me it is a “privilege teaching clients to advocate for themselves, to know that they matter.” Another said, the “job is so rewarding when you are able to see the clients complete the goals that they want to accomplish for themselves.” “We try to use new ideas to help our clients grow and be the best they can be,” said a third. Others have said that ”every day is a challenge of love and laughter,” but that the “clients deserve the opportunities and happiness like everyone else.”