Andrea Hilbert has been a Direct Support Professional (DSP) at Penn-Mar for 15 years. In that time she’s supported people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a variety of capacities: through the Maryland Day Program, the Pennsylvania Day Program, as a substitute in the Residential Program when called upon, and for the past two years, as a one-on-one support person.
She jokes that in this field, the only thing that’s constant is change. “It’s a bit scary at first, starting out as a DSP. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so it takes a while to get to know what works for each person you support. Everyone’s different.”
While Andrea may have started out “a bit intimidated” and “very shy,” you wouldn’t know it if you met her today. She tries to take new DSPs under her wing, introducing them around at the Day Program. “It’s hard to get to know everyone because so many of us are out and about! There’s not a lot of time when we’re all in the same place.”
This, too, is a change from past programming models, when organizations had sheltered workshops. While Andrea acknowledges that community connections are incredibly important, she also recognizes that transitioning from having a consistent job and a paycheck to being job seekers who are looking for a community-based, customized job, can be frustrating for people with disabilities in the interim. “That paycheck makes people feel proud and valued,” she explains.
“Person-Centered is an important concept, we’re embracing it fully, and we have great Job Developers, but it’s hard when funding doesn’t always support truly person-centered models. It wasn’t that long ago that government regulations said that a 14 to 1 [people with disabilities to a DSP] ratio was reasonable. That was incredibly difficult and not at all productive for the people we were supporting! Policies don’t always get it right.“
To that point, Andrea encourages herself, her fellow DSPs, and the people she supports to “be creative thinkers.” The person she supports in a one-on-one capacity is very energetic, lots of fun, but can also quickly become negative. “Supporting him has helped me become more positive,” said Andrea. “We can’t both be having a bad day!”
Perhaps it’s this positivity that helps Andrea be so successful. “If you want to succeed, you have to challenge yourself. And you have to accept change. It’s hard, but everyone can always grow. I recently participated in the [National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals] Career Ladders program. It explained so much and encouraged us to attempt new things and to break out of routines. It made me say, ‘I can try that.’”
Indeed, it’s clear from Andrea’s track record that she is most definitely a person who will “try that.” Working in a variety of programs, as well as having a sister-in-law who receives support from Penn-Mar, has given her an incredibly comprehensive perspective. “I think it’s important to understand both sides, and to draw your own opinions. Whether that’s thinking about things from a family’s perspective, or from the individual’s perspective, or from the perspective of the DSP. It takes accountability and communication.”
Andrea’s desire for respect and empathy from all parties extends to the general public, too. “The people I support are loving and caring, but not always accepted. It’s heartbreaking to watch, because just like any of us, they love relationships,” she says emphatically. “Sometimes we’ll be out and a person [we support] will have a meltdown because there’s too much going on. People stare and make judgmental comments or assume that they know better than us or even the person who is upset! Those are the moments when I wish I could educate people.”
“Things have changed a lot over the years. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it’s good. It’s definitely guaranteed to keep changing! I just wish that one day everyone will see what we see in the people we support.”