Whether reflected in some ancient Greek tragedy, or in the latest superhero movie, the question about the ethical use of power has been a human concern for all of history. You might say choices about power have been the source of history itself. Ask people with disabilities. Their history has been largely determined by how others choose to use power. While other groups may ebb and flow out of empowerment, wax and wane from dominance to marginalization and back again, people with disabilities have been almost uniformly at the whim of the powerful, whoever that might be at the time. Recent history, with its institutions, segregations, and overseer ‘departments,’ is no exception. They way power is wielded by others shapes the history, the life story, of the supported person. Accepting this as true, the industry as a whole needs an alternative model of power and leadership, a model that is effective in empowering others. Such a model is offered by servant leadership.
While its’ principles are found across cultural traditions and time periods, servant leadership was first cogently articulated by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s, addressing issues of leadership and the ethical use of power. Servant leadership is best understood in contrast to a power model of leadership. Within a power model of leadership, power is treated as an end in itself. Power is used as a means to acquire more power and control. For the servant leader, on the other hand, power is an instrument, power is a means to an end. For the servant leader, power is a tool used for the benefit of others. Greenleaf taught that the surest test of servant leadership was to ask whether those under the influence of a particular leader were growing as persons. If so, you have an example of a servant leader.
For our purposes, a clear contrast between a power model of leadership and a servant model can be found by looking at the recent history of our industry. The institutions of the past were firmly entrenched in a power model of leadership. This was almost a necessity given the tremendous number of people living within them. The great number of people required a high level of control exerted by a disproportionately small number of staff people. It is worth noting that prisons have the same model and concerns. In such settings, it is not about helping people grow as persons. In those institutions, it is little better than herding and housing, controlling everything to make the system more manageable for the staff who worked there.
The movement out of institutions may be seen as a shift toward servant leadership. Questions were asked about quality of life, personal needs and potentials, and how to support people to flourish rather than managing “a social problem.” This was a shift toward using power for the benefit of people with disabilities, rather than the control and management of them.
In many states (though sadly not all) people have moved out of institutions, new regulations have been promulgated to protect and support the dignity of people with disabilities, and powerful voices continue to advocate for full inclusion. Despite these changes, one obstacle that we continue to struggle with is an institutional mindset, which is really just a power model mindset. Every way in which our industry continues to segregate people with disabilities into special groups of ‘peers’, categorize them with special labels like ‘individual’, decide where they ought to live, or make decisions about supports which are really just about supporting staff and management, we are operating according to a power model. People’s growth is limited as a result.
We still have a long way to go. In many places we’ve succeeded to help people leave the institutions. Now its time to help staff and management leave as well. Servant leadership, using our power for the flourishing of others, provides a different model, a person centered model rather than a system centered model. People have left and are leaving the institutions established by a power model of thinking, now it’s time to do away with the power model thinking itself.
Respect is a worldview. Perhaps more exact, respect is a way of viewing the world. Respect comes from the Latin verb specere, meaning ‘to look at,’ along with its prefix re, meaning ‘back’ or ‘again.” The word ‘inspect’ comes from the same root. To in-spect something means ‘to examine,’ or ‘to look into.’ To re-spect something means to give something a second look, to take it into deeper consideration. Adopting an attitude of respect, one begins to doubt the truth of first judgments, biases, stereotypes and prejudices. The respectful person acknowledges the presence of all of these, but also sees through them. The respectful person brackets the convenient categorizations of society, convinced that deeper realities lie beneath them. The respectful person looks again and again, discovering more, learning more. Respect is a way of seeing the world. Without this vision, we cannot effectively pursue our mission at Community Systems. That is why it is the first of our core values.
The people we support rarely get a second look from society. They are judged with a quick glance and written off as having limited capacity and value. Rarely are they given the abiding consideration inherent to respect. Rarely are they afforded the time and patient observation required to uncover their gifts and deepest worth. It is sad to say, but the people we care for are far more likely to be inspected than respected. They are assessed, evaluated, and tested regularly; all of which happens routinely and without difficulty. But establishing a genuine human connection, a friendship, or even an equitable social exchange with a stranger (one not characterized by pity or infantilization), is a never ending challenge for almost every person we support. They are inspected without a hiccup. But to be respected? That requires moving heaven and earth. As people who support them, as people who advocate on their behalf, if we ourselves don’t start with respect then we’ve defeated ourselves (and failed them) before we’ve even started. Respect is critical to our role as advocates. It is also at the core of our supports.
At CSI, we strive to offer individual, person-centered, supports. All people are complex. They change from day-to-day, year-to-year. Only by approaching someone with respect, looking again and again, truly seeing and hearing what the person is telling us, can we hope to offer supports that are relevant and tailored to that specific person. The respectful Direct Support Professional (DSP) questions blanket statements like “he doesn’t like to go to the store,” or “she hates crowds,” or “he could never go swimming.” The respectful DSP inquires into the history of such statements: “when was the last time he tried going to a store? Are there particular stores he doesn’t like? Are there particular days he would prefer to go?” The respectful DSP receives the reality as it is being presented, but then has the courage to look again, to go deeper, to ask more so as to learn more. Without the respectful approach we simply cannot offer adequate individualized supports. Without the respectful approach we are destined to work among outmoded support strategies and lazy blanket judgments, inert and encrusted relics passed from one shift to the next.
Developing and practicing the discipline of respect, of looking-again, we are always renewed. Looking again and again, we learn to question our current way of thinking, our biases, our own prejudices. Respectful, we are constantly evolving. This is perhaps respect’s greatest power: the power it has to change us. When we approach the world with respect, we always find something new; our minds change, new ideas spark, we find more in the world worthy of honor and love. It is essential to practice respect for the fulfillment of our mission at CSI, but practicing it, we find that our whole world changes.
Respect is a way of seeing the world. It is a way of seeing the world new, again and again. CSI has listed respect as the first of its core values, and it is easy to understand why. Respect empowers us to advocate effectively, to support individually and to grow personally. Without it, we are lost. Without the vision respect grants, we are blinded, in the dark, stumbling thoughtlessly among stereotypes, numbly lounging within the status quo. Without respect, our other core values are lifeless. In short, respectful eyes are the only eyes that can see the way to the fulfillment of our mission. Respectful eyes are the only eyes that can open the eyes of others.
When is a crisis no longer a crisis? When it has been going on for 30 years. For the past 30 years, the role of Direct Support Professional (DSP) has been plagued by high turnover-rates, diminishing income and low staff levels. This is not a new reality. It is not the result of an historic bull market or low unemployment rates. This problem has persisted through market swells and crashes, recessions and periods of economic flourishing. What has been termed a “crisis” for the past 30 years is not, in fact, a crisis. It is a baseline; a baseline rooted in social bias and discrimination.
Direct Support Professional is a demanding position requiring a diverse mix of competencies. Part counselor, part nurse, part advocate, part behavioral analyst, part activities coordinator, part cook, part housekeeper, DSPs wear many hats and move in and out of many roles. To perform effectively, a DSP requires patience, emotional intelligence, organizational skills, behavioral management strategies, medication administration certification, cooking and cleaning skills, and so much more. The role of DSP cannot be filled by just anyone. It requires a wide range of skills. It is not an average unskilled entry-level position. But it is paid like one.
Our economic system tends to compensate employees according to the rarity of their skills. Not everyone is trained to do the work of a surgeon, a CEO, or a lawyer, but most people have the skills to run a cash register or serve food. It is basic supply and demand. The rarer the skills, the greater the compensation. Experience teaches us that not everyone can succeed as a DSP. The high turnover rate for DSPs (the national average is currently at 46%) attests not only to the poor compensation the position receives, but also to the position’s difficulty. People have a hard time staying in the job because it is hard work requiring a broad set of skills. Add to this that the need for DSPs is expected to grow every year from now until 2030 and you have a strange economic situation. A demanding job, requiring multiple skill sets, that is experiencing increasing demand, and that many people cannot do, should be compensated significantly more than an ordinary unskilled entry level position. It just makes economic sense. But here is the reality:
- The average wage for DSPs is $11.76 per hour.
- DSP wages have decreased over the past 30 years when adjusted for inflation.
- Most DSPs have to work a second (or third) job to support themselves and their families.
- At current wage levels, many DSPs live below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
- About 50% of DSPs must rely on public assistance to meet their basic needs.
The increasing need for DSPs combined with diminishing compensation makes for an unsustainable system. It will collapse upon itself if it isn’t changed.
This problem is not merely an economic issue. It is a social justice issue. As briefly argued here, the typical economics of the job market do not explain the chronic under-funding of direct support positions. The persistent poor compensation of DSPs is in truth a symptom of a persistent social injustice: discrimination against people with disabilities. Because those with disabilities are less-valued, the positions that support them are less valued as well. Increased funding is essential to address the current economic injustice DSPs experience. But to truly address the problem, such that it doesn’t recur, the social injustice must be corrected. This requires a shift in cultural consciousness that gives proper respect to people with disabilities. Anything less will lead us right back into the same position regardless of what gains may be made in funding over the short term.
The person supported and the person supporting are inextricably tied. To devalue one is to necessarily devalue the other. A true and abiding solution to this ‘crisis’ will come only when a new baseline of dignity and respect is set for both.