Direct Support Professional: Bridge Builders of Community Inclusion

Direct support Professional’s (DSP’s) have an important role in assisting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in becoming a part of their community. There are three areas we will explore in increasing successful community integration. Understanding the meaning of community inclusion is an important first step. Second, one must understand the significance of natural supports for people having developmental and or intellectual disabilities. The third step is community bridge building. There are many speed bumps that exist on the road to community integration, but integration can be achieved with an open mind, patience and positive attitude.

What is Community Inclusion

Community Inclusion is sharing in community life specific to four areas. The first area is to have a physical presence in one’s community. This could be living in a normal house in a normal subdivision with all types of neighbors. Cultural integration is important as it also helps establish a common likeness and acceptance. Cultural norms may favor a particular type of job or go to a specific church. Connections with others are an important, necessary ingredient of inclusion. Relationships with all kinds of people not just people with disabilities is a requirement in inclusion. Just as important is self-determination in forming relationships and choosing activities. Activities and acquaintances should be choices of the participant and not based upon convenience of a DSP.

Equally important is to understand what is not community integration. If a participant is on a van with a group of other program participants in the community, the fact that they are on a van with others in the community is not community integration. Just because a person goes to the Day Program for people with disabilities in the community, it is not considered real integration. If a person lives in a regular community or subdivision, this is not necessarily community integration. Community inclusion requires active participation in one’s community, with all types of community members.

Natural Supports

Natural supports are merely life. We all have natural relationships in life. This means we have community connections and relationships with all types of people. Examples of natural support are friendships with coworkers, being friends with various church congregation members, having family relationships, having a neighbor that brings soup when you are feeling ill. Natural supports build a sense of interdependence with others. Interdependence is a mutually beneficial connection between two people. These relationships are based on commonality and a sense of mutual respect. Interdependent relationships act to provide safety and security for the participant. Participants with community associations and natural support are less likely to face abuse, neglect and exploitation than those who do not have connections.

Community Bridge Building

The DSP assists the participant in building connections with community members, friends and community organizations. The DSP serves an important role in educating the community on the importance of acceptance and understanding. One of the best things a DSP can do is be a proper role model for behavior and communication for those they support. DSP’s should not assume that participants understand socially acceptable ways to interact and make good first impressions. DSP should keep in mind that participants face stigma and are viewed unfairly based on media portrayals or simple ignorance. Relationships take time to build, and DSP’s should encourage frequent community involvement

Inclusion: Help or Hinderance?

For the past few years there has been an increased push for children of all ages with special needs to be integrated into “typical peer” situations. While it can be the magic ticket for some children, it is not for everyone.

The parents of many children with special needs want their child to be “normal”. Part of this is moving into a traditional classroom. Some parents push their children into “typical” peer groups as early as when they are infants with the hope that it will make it so. There is a case for this type of action, but there are cautions as well.

Pro: Inclusion is an older concept than many people think. Vygotsky discussed it in his theory of education. He felt that putting children in an environment where there are peers of varying abilities would eventually move children to the middle of the developmental range present in the classroom. Each child would learn, not only from their teacher, but from their peers as well. For children with special needs inclusion can be an ideal learning environment. They may benefit from more verbal peers who can help them with social speech skills. For example, children can learn how to use their words for conversation, pretend play, and turn taking skills by working with their classmates who talk more. Children also see how other children are behaving in group situations and can adapt theirs to match. Peers who are more mobile can also motivate children with challenges to join in the fun.

Cons: For some children inclusion is extremely difficult. For those with extreme needs, even having a personal aid may not be enough for them to fully engage with others in the class. Children with severe motor needs and decreased cognitive ability may not reap the same benefits from an inclusion situation. These children may end up sitting alone or not receive the individualized care that they need to prevent pressure sores or other medical issues. In the same light, children with issues such as autism may find the inclusion classroom too stimulating for them. This can cause behavioral outbursts, self abusive behavior, and self-isolation. Likewise, an aid can do too much for the child or make too many exceptions to the point where the child is doing little to no work in the inclusion classroom. While the inclusion may be the least restrictive environment, the structure may not be ideal for the best possible outcome.

Special Considerations: All of this being said, there are some factors which also need to be considered. Some schools have a well established and tested program for inclusion. They introduce inclusion in a scheduled and monitored manner. They utilize transition tools such as Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) and social stories to help make the process easier. The educational team meets regularly to discuss concerns and brainstorm solutions. Other schools are not as organized. In these situations, children may be placed into a “typical” classroom without the support needed to be successful. Teachers and aids may not be trained on communication and motor needs or how to engage children with special needs. The team may not communicate amongst themselves or with the family. Without good support and communication, the success of the inclusion program is limited.

Parents need to truly look at their child and determine the abilities and issues which can make inclusion helpful or harmful for them. Talking to the school about their policies, communication, and support for not only the child but the rest of the team can help determine if inclusion is a good fit. Inclusion is not for everyone. Some children need more attention throughout their day. By taking the time to truly examine the needs and abilities of the child and how they can work within the different classroom options, parents and educational teams can find the most successful and appropriate placement!

©R. Wellman 2011