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January 25, 2022

What is a DSP?

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A DSP works with a young man on his lesson

The In-Demand Career You May Not Have Considered

Are you a recent high school graduate? A college student seeking experience in your field?  Maybe you’re looking to make a meaningful career change or simply want to get back to work.  

Direct support professionals (DSPs) come from a variety of backgrounds and work experiences. One thing they all have in common though is a passion for helping people. In this article, we’ll look at what a DSP does, why they are—now more than ever—in critical demand, and explore the different types of DSPs and their qualifications. 

You may discover this rewarding career path sounds like the perfect opportunity for yourself or someone you know.  

What is a DSP? 

Direct support professionals work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) or behavioral health challenges, either in a residential or program setting. Examples of intellectual or developmental disabilities include Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism.  

The keyword is “direct”. If you aren’t a people person this job is simply not for you. DSPs work closely with people of all ages, helping them become active members in the communities where they live, work, and play.  

What exactly does a DSP do? 

DSPs are true caregivers.  

Depending on the needs of the person served, a DSP helps with everything from chores around the home, to personal hygiene, to trips to the grocery or doctor’s office. 

What sets a DSP apart from the typical caregiver role is a focus on personal growth and well-being. Mentor, support-person, and friend, a DSP helps people get involved in their community, learn new skills, explore hobbies, and realize goals.  

There are also direct support positions involving more specialized work. We’ll get into that in the “Types of DSPs” section.  

Why are DSP jobs in such high demand? 

Historically, the demand for DSPs has always outweighed the “supply” of workers.  

One reason could be the stigma that still exists towards disabilities. People who haven’t spent a lot of time with children or adults with disabilities in their community are often unsure of working with individuals with I/DD. 

To this, Michelle Stewart, ICF administrator, at Boundless says, “If you know how to interact with your neighbor or co-workers, it is not different from anyone in the I/DD world. They may process information differently or take more time, but at the core of everything, if you treat people like people, that’s all the experience you need.”  

That’s not to say the job doesn’t come with its own challenges. Another reason DSPs are always in demand is the high turnover rate.  

While caring for individuals with IDDs is a very rewarding job, new hires don’t always fully appreciate the amount of responsibility the role entails, which can vary greatly depending on the level of care the individual requires.  

“Some of the people we work with have high-risk behaviors, such as aggression or self-injury,” says Jen LaLuzerne, administrator of intensive ABA services. “A year or so ago we had an individual come to Boundless who required six people working with him at all times. While he still needs this level of support today, he's really made a lot of progress. He's shown a decrease in aggression, has started being able to do more trips into the community, and is participating in school.” 

“It's not about changing someone,” LaLuzerne goes on to explain. “It's about working with people so they can enjoy the freedoms we all deserve, so they gain the ability to do things they or their family may never have thought possible. Watching this progress and knowing you played a part is rewarding, but the level of responsibility and commitment this job requires does mean it's not for everyone.”  

To those who do find themselves equal to the responsibility, the joy of making a difference in the lives of others can keep them around for years. Many DSPs come to regard the people they work with, both their team and the people served, as family. 

“I’ve been working with some people since they were five years old,” Stewart shares. “Seeing them grow over the past thirty years has been very special. Various teams I have been on have kept me going and plugged in. I can’t say enough about seeing people grow, evolve, and change.” 

COVID Turns Demand into a Staffing Crisis 

While every industry has experienced hiring challenges during COVID, direct support, which was already struggling with staffing, is currently experiencing a significant hiring crisis.  

We’ve all heard the term “essential worker” countless times since the pandemic started.  

Direct support professionals are at the top of the list when it comes to being indispensable.  

Many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live in supported living homes and require various levels of assistance with daily tasks, while others may only need a friendly face to check in once a week or so to see how they’re doing. For those who live in what is called an intermediate care facility (ICF), around-the-clock care and supervision are required to ensure their safety and well-being. For these people, DSPs are especially critical. 

While COVID has made the job market seriously competitive for companies, not everyone has the resources to compete. 

“What many people don’t realize is that we are limited by Medicaid funding when it comes to employee salaries. With that said, Boundless has one of the highest starting rates in the state for DSPs. There’s also a bill currently in congress that would hopefully help with this hiring crisis,” says Laurie Livingston-Robert, regional director at Boundless.  

Boundless Now Hiring Direct Support Professionals

Do you have what it takes to be a DSP?

The minimum qualifications required for a direct support professional at Boundless are: 

  •  Must be at least eighteen years of age 

  • High School Diploma or equivalent 

  • Must be able to communicate in English, including both spoken and written 

All new employees, whether they have previous experience or not, receive paid training when starting at Boundless. If you do have related experience, it’s of course a plus.   

New hires also go through Individual specific training (IST), which is on-the-job training specifically based on the person with whom they are working.  

More important than qualifications are a person’s qualities.  

The desire to help people, an aptitude for patience and understanding, and the ability to provide guidance and encouragement are all things hiring managers look for in candidates. At Boundless, the ideal DSP is committed to our five values of love, respect, empowerment, excellence, and well-being. 

Types of DSPs 

There are several types of DSPs. This first set are traditional DSPs, but are distinguished by the setting they work in or schedule type. 

  • Direct Support Professional, Supported Living - The ultimate goal in supported living is for the people you work with to make their own decisions and plan their own day. Individuals who live in a supported living setting generally require less assistance than those in an ICF. The age group ranges from young adults who have just moved into their own place to older adults still enjoying the freedom of running their own homes.  
  • Direct Support Professional, ICF - The daily routines at intensive care facilities are very structured and at the same time highly individualized. One of the biggest goals is to teach people new skills, such as money management, household chores, and socializing. As with supported living, the people you are working with in this setting are adults. 
  • Direct Support Specialist, Respite - This position is somewhat unique in that you’ll find yourself working with children, adolescents, or adults any given week. Individuals who come to respite are there on a temporary or emergency basis, staying anywhere from a few hours to several weeks.  
  • Direct Support Professional, PRN - PRN is an acronym for the Latin term “pro re nata,” which essentially means “as needed”. These DSPs do not have a set schedule and only work up to twenty hours a week, meaning they do not receive benefits. It’s a good opportunity for someone with a reasonably open schedule who is looking to make extra money doing a rewarding job. 
  • Direct Support Professional, Weekend Specialist - Only working weekends, these DSPs are paid more per hour. They work up to twenty-four hours a week (twelve hours each, Saturday and Sunday) and are therefore eligible for benefits.  

This next batch of job titles are direct support professionals in that they work directly with individuals with I/DD. However, these positions require more professional and educational qualifications as they perform more specialized tasks. 

  • Behavior Technician (BT) - BTs work with a wide variety of ages. More on the clinical and psychological side than other direct support positions, BTs typically work closely with a team to develop and execute an individualized plan for children or adults with behavioral health challenges. The main purpose of their job is to reduce negative behavior, such as self-injury and aggression. BTs require forty hours of specialized training and certification. Similar positions include behavior analysts and behavioral health specialists.  
  • Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) - Speech-language pathologists work with individuals of all ages, from infants to adults, to improve communication skills. This often involves alternative types of communication apart from the spoken word, including the use of electronic speech tablets, American Sign Language, writing, and gestures. They often play games as a way to teach! The educational qualifications to become an SLP are much higher than the other direct support roles featured in this article, requiring a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. To those who are currently studying English, education, psychology, language development, or linguistics, these are just some of the related bachelor’s degrees that are accepted as a foundation to becoming an SLP. 
  • Manager Positions - Many people who start off as DSPs go on to be managers. Residential and program managers still get to enjoy daily contact with the people they serve, and help support and encourage DSPs in their job. 

Additional Positions 

  • Day programs, which offer socialization and/or vocational training, also provide a rewarding setting for DSPs to work. One such unique program at Boundless is called Spire Arts, which offers adults the opportunity to expand their skills as an artist, participate in art galleries, and learn how to sell their work.  
  • Another program at Boundless is the Parent-Directed Program. You won’t find these positions listed on the jobs page, as families choose their own DSPs, typically someone they know, to care for their child.  

Becoming a DSP  

No matter what your current work experience is, you have the potential to succeed (and help others succeed!) as a direct support professional.  

Consider what type of DSP sounds like the best fit for you, bearing in mind that for entry-level positions you may be placed where you are needed.  

Think about your personal skills and hobbies outside of work! Do you like watching movies, playing awesome riffs on your guitar, or growing veggies in your garden? At Boundless, we like to pair DSPs with individuals who have similar interests, when possible.  

In Conclusion  

Due to a history of staffing issues and the current COVID hiring crisis, the demand for caring and committed direct support professionals is at an all-time high. For individuals with I/DD, not having support is not an option. If you or someone you know is looking for a rewarding job that really makes a difference, we hope you’ll consider applying to become a DSP today. 

Check out to apply for DSP jobs across Ohio.  

About Boundless 

Boundless is more than a company name. It's a statement about who we are and what we believe. For more than forty years, we have provided people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and behavioral health challenges the freedom and opportunity to live boundless lives. 

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