I'm at the 'EX' (Canada's National Exhibition) watching Ruby and Sadie as they go through a 'fun house' over and over and over again. They love it. It's fun to relax into my day off and watch the kids simply have fun. While waiting in the shade for them to go through it yet another time, I see a young staff, she's maybe 40, with a man of similar age with an intellectual disability. He has an unsteady gait and he really wants to go through the fun house. She walks him to the exit so he can see that on the way out people have to go through a moving, circular, exit. He tells her that he thinks he can do it and wants to try.
She doesn't try to talk him out of it, and they make their way to the entrance. They wait behind a group of teens and and elderly couple for their turn. Then in they go. I can see their progress because I've become familiar with the outer parts of the pathway having seen the girls do it several times. Along the top balcony there were rollers that the kids loved part scooting, part rolling across. When the disabled fellow got there he looked to his staff, she gave him encouragement and laughing they both made it across. You could see his pride, fully evident as it gripped his shoulders.
At the exit, where we were waiting, we saw her come out first. We'd already seen the attendant stop the rolling circle at the exit a couple of times for people who felt they couldn't do it. She coached him to come forward or to let the attendant know he wanted it stopped. Her face lit up when he launched forward and laughing as he almost fell, like everyone else did, before stepping on firm ground.
There was a young couple standing next to us, also watching, they, like us were waiting for kids to come through. But unlike us, they didn't see her work. The man said to his wife, "Must be nice to get paid to just play around, go to fairs and movies," she nodded. Like me they were having a day off, but they couldn't see that the staff was working a holiday, providing quality service, making a difference in the world.
They saw the place she was at but not the work she were doing. The same is true for almost every direct support professional. People see you working in someone's home and don't realize that you are WORKING in someone's home. People see you supporting someone shopping and don't realize that you are SUPPORTING not SHOPPING. People get confused by where you are so they can't see what you are doing.
Many people simply don't understand what direct support professionals do or why they do it, but what's even worse is that lots of those people don't understand your work as work and your job as a profession. The staff I saw yesterday was a skilled professional. She was skilled at giving exactly the right support. She knew that supporting someone was offering a whole series of choices, he didn't need direction, he needed someone to allow space and time, to provide information and options, and then allow him the dignity of making his own choice that effected his world and his time spent living his life.
We have miles to go in educating the public in regards to the value of people with intellectual disabilities, but I would suggest we have even further to go in educating people, educating systems and educating governments about the value of the work done by direct support professionals. Maybe the most important thing that matters, right now, is that the people we support, like the man at the 'EX' see our work, see our support, and benefit from our skill.
That staff that I saw, she looked as if she simply loved what she did. Loved supporting this guy to do what he wanted to do. And that's great. It's even a reward in and of itself. But we must remember, a labour of love is still work. It still requires skill and effort, it still requires that we leave our homes and families on a holiday weekend to support someone else. No matter what, it's work.
And unlike what the couple beside me implied, it's work that requires skill.
A lot of skill.
Direct support professionals are skilled professionals providing a valuable service so that people can live valued lives, freely, in their community.
It's a big deal.
As the staff was walking away with him I saw him turn to her and say, "Thanks."
He gets it. One day others will too.