“Knowledge is power” is the most fitting phrase to describe the impetus and passion behind Penn-Mar Direct Support Professional (DSP) and Residential Supervisor Rita Arnett and her remarkable achievements in the past few years.
With the new year begun, Rita has proudly entered it with the rare distinction of being one of only five people in the United States who have earned national DSP-Specialist certification, the highest level of certification for DSPs offered by the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP). NADSP partnered with Penn-Mar in 2016 to establish the human services organization’s Career Ladders program, a career development and credentialing program.
In addition, Rita is the only person in the country to specialize in aging, one of the five DSP Specialist Credentials – the others being Inclusion, Health Support, Employment Supports, and Positive Behavioral Support. The DSP-Specialist credential recognizes those who have already achieved their DSP-R (Registered), DSP-I and DSP-II status. Incidentally, Rita was the first to receive her DSP-I certification from Penn-Mar’s inaugural Career Ladders class.
“There are only a few Direct Support Professionals who achieve that specialized level,” said NADSP’s Executive Director, Joseph Macbeth. Those who do, not only are exceptional DSPs and practice with the highest standards, but apply a lot of creativity and stick-to-itiveness. We find that once the DSP gets that first level, the following level becomes somewhat easier, because it’s not quite as intimidating. The hardest part about this is that there’s an intimidation factor.”
Erin McDonough: Rita’s Driving Force
Rita started her career at Penn-Mar 21 years ago, working with a group of women with Down syndrome in their Leader Heights home, in York, Pa. One of the women, Erin McDonough, developed Alzheimer’s and sadly passed away two years ago. At the time Erin started showing signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s there was very little information about the disease in relation to people with Down syndrome, so Rita took it upon herself to research it so that she and staff could best support Erin through her journey.
“I felt very frustrated that I had no control over Alzheimer’s,” said Rita. “The only control I could have over the disease was education. So I did a lot of research. After Erin passed away, I continued to gather as much information wherever I could to help anybody else who was going through this situation, because it’s very difficult. Alzheimer’s is a cruel and merciless disease.”
When Rita entered the Human Services field in 1984, the life expectancy of someone with Down syndrome was 30. In the ensuing decades, with medical advances, better care and quality of life, life expectancy has doubled. But as Rita pointed out, findings show that although people with Down syndrome are living longer, healthier lives, they are at a very high risk of developing Alzheimer’s, as they are born with the plaque that causes the disease.
Rita’s ongoing research led her to the National Task Group on Intellectual Disabilities and Dementia Practices (NTG). She discovered that the NTG offered training, so she submitted a request to Penn-Mar to take the course in order to provide training to staff on capable care of adults with dementia and intellectual disabilities. The request was granted and Penn-Mar sent Rita and Senior Residential Assistant Lisa Hartley to the training course. Since 2017, the two women have been providing Penn-Mar team members with dementia and disability in-house training using the NTG curriculum.
Rita’s research, her NTG training and her NADSP credentials have opened doors to a greater understanding of Alzheimer’s and the aging issues people with intellectual disabilities are experiencing. It’s become her greatest passion, and soon she will be doing a webinar with NADSP and NTG, who are now partners.
“It was only natural that I would select aging as my DSP specialty,” said Rita. “It happened quickly, but it helped that I was already an official trainer for the NTG.”
Rita received her DSP-Specialist certification this past November, and in July, she received her DSP-II certification. With the first two certification levels, participants must put in 200 hours of training (100 hours per level), and 40 hours of training and three work samples to achieve the Specialist Credential. There is a rigorous amount of work and time required in training and practicums, and preparing final portfolios for submission at all levels.
“DSPs are not often asked to be reflective and intentional in their work and connecting their work to validated skill standards and the research behind the skill standards,” said Joseph “DSPs are typically more intuitive and use their gut and instincts to do their work. A lot of times you do have to rely on your gut, instincts and your intuition, but a professional uses intention. Professionals understand the research behind their practice and that’s what you see with people like Rita, who understand the complexity of this work and has been able to translate that into practice.”
Joseph also noted that DSPs who achieve these highest levels of direct support practice have a responsibility to the profession, the organization, and to make sure that they encourage their coworkers to be better.
“Just look at what Rita’s done,” said Joseph. “Being a casual observer or reader of this story these outcomes are significant, but when you have people like me and my colleagues at NADSP who review these outcomes, this is sophisticated work.”
For Rita, Erin has been her drive all along.
“When I am training, I tell everyone that Erin is teaching you today. I tell Erin’s story,” she said.