When I began working in the developmental services sector, those of us who worked directly with people with disabilities were called ‘front line workers.’ I never particularly liked the term, but probably not surprisingly the reason I didn’t like the word was about me and how I felt about my work. I objected to the word ‘worker.’ What the heck was a ‘worker?’ Isn’t, by definition, anyone who does work a ‘worker?’
But then one day I was chatting with a fellow staff who agreed with me that the term ‘front line worker’ was a poor choice, however I was surprised at her reasoning. “We aren’t at war with people with disabilities, why are we using such a military term? We send warriors to the front line,” she said, “and I, I am not a warrior.” I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what she had said.
And came to the realization that we kind of were at war with people with disabilities. If we were honest, most of what we did, back then, was about control, was about people following instructions, was about people doing what they were told – because I said so. The system wasn’t set up for anything but obedience and compliance and acquiescence. And we were the enforcers of that.
We had weapons. We had reinforcers and we had punishers. For those who don’t think that the power to withhold reinforcers is a weapon, think again. Our punishers showed the mammoth social power we had in the lives of people with disabilities, ‘ ignoring’ is simply the withdrawal of our attention. Because people with disabilities lived in worlds where we were the dominant social force the withdrawal of our attention acted as a punisher. That’s a little scary. Time out, is essentially, time out and away from us and our good graces. Ouch. Yeah, we had weapons.
Then suddenly there’s some kind of sea change and a new word appears on the horizon, “direct support professional.” Now the egocentric part of me responded quickly and positively. There’s a heck of a big difference between “professional” and “worker.” But the part of me that actually thinks about what I did then, and still do now, reacted with equal enthusiasm. “Direct Support,” as a term reflects what we do, and the attitude with which we do it and even the tools we carry with us, so much better than, “Front line.” Now it sounds like we come home from work having given support rather than bloodied with the conflicts of the day. Now we come home as the liberators rather than the occupying force – the oppressors.
People often say that language doesn’t really make change. I don’t agree. I think language both reflects change and initiates change. I think the recognition of the work we do as providing support directly to a person in a professional manner is part of the larger solution of transforming the disability sector. I think that same recognition can transform individual staff who work in difficult situations as it reminds them what they are there doing and that, no matter what, they are professionals doing a job, a sometimes very difficult job. We are what we call ourselves.
I join in today in the celebration of Direct Support Professionals Recognition week. I celebrate the achievements of a workforce that is transforming lives, transforming communities and therefore transforming the world that we live in. Supporting people with intellectual disabilities to live valued lives is an act of rebellion against history, its an act of creating a new tomorrow, it profoundly matters.
As I go about my daily life, I see people with intellectual disabilities in places that they wouldn’t have been ten years ago. I see people with disabilities going about their business independently, a dream that wasn’t even dreamt twenty years ago. I see people with disabilities at work, at play and fully engaged in their community.
They are victories that came with the partnership that comes when direct support meets personal needs, when professionals listen to and follow direction from people who guide their service.
They are victories well won, if at the front line, it’s not at the front line of service provision but at the front line of prejudice and discrimination.