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The Role of Direct Support Professionals in Promoting Health and Wellness

by Meg Traci and Tom Seekins

Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) can, and do, play important roles in maintaining the health and wellness of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). How they fulfill that role is influenced by the commitment of service provider organizations to wellness for both those they support and those they employ. This article looks at specific ways that wellness for persons with IDD, and wellness for DSPs, are connected and can be supported.

How DSPs Can Support Others' Wellness

DSPs can assist individuals with IDD to stay on track in following established routines that support health and wellness. They can help prioritize healthy activities over less healthy activities, especially when stressors disrupt routines (e.g., if dinner is running late, the walk following dinner can still happen, but perhaps it’s a shorter walk). DSPs can assist individuals with IDD to monitor for, and recognize, important changes in their physical, behavioral, and psychological status. When there are concerns, DSPs can help individuals address those concerns. Experienced DSPs know that sudden changes in behavior (e.g., anger, aggression) are often signs of a health problem (e.g., pain, hunger, too little sleep, depression) and should be treated as such. Finally, when healthy routines get disrupted, DSPs can help individuals reestablish those routines.

Some of the specific ways that DSPs can partner with individuals with IDD to support health or wellness goals and objectives are the following:

Wellness and DSP Turnover

Some of our early research on DSPs and the health and wellness of persons with IDD showed that turnover of DSPs contributed to increased limitations due to secondary and other health conditions among persons with IDD affected by those staffing changes (Traci, Seekins, & Seninger, 2001). Specifically, individuals with IDD experienced increased limitation due to psychological, social interaction, hygiene, allergy, memory, and balance problems, as well as injuries due to accidents or seizures. These findings were consistent with other research showing that adequate personal assistance services were associated with better health outcomes, such as fewer pressure sores and infections, better fitness, and uninterrupted sleep (Kaye, Chapman, Newcomer & Harrington, 2006; Kay, Harrington, & LaPlante, 2010; LaPlante, Kay, Kang, & Harrington, 2004; Rimmer & Rowland, 2008; and Nosek, Fuhrer & Potter, 1995). Increasing DSP stability, and the communications and routines they support, is an essential part of sustaining health and wellness of individuals with IDD.

One approach to reducing turnover is to attend to the health and wellness of DSPs by creating a culture of wellness in service provider agencies. In Montana, for example, we have promoted health and wellness resources to DSPs, including models to increase their access to health insurance and better pay, and awareness of public health programs such as the Quit Line, cancer screening programs, and health education classes. Recently, we have begun promoting Worksite Wellness as a comprehensive approach to improve the health and wellness of DSPs because a reduction in absenteeism, and an increase in staff retention, are among the demonstrated outcomes of comprehensive Worksite Wellness programs (U.S. HHS, 2015; Baicker, Cutler & Song, 2010). We see this approach as a possible means for increasing stability in the DSP workforce, thereby improving health and wellness for the individuals they support.

The Montana Worksite Health Promotion Coalition gives employers bronze, silver, and gold awards in recognition of excellence in Worksite Wellness programs at three levels: basic, enhanced, and comprehensive (award criteria and more information is available at With our partners, we have begun to ask, “What if service provider organizations that support individuals with IDD were counted among those employers?” Consider, for example, the potential to integrate health and wellness training resources for staff into existing DSP training systems. (For ideas of how this might work, see information on NIOSH’s Total Worker Health®, available at, and the CDC Workplace Health Promotion toolkit, available at These kinds of initiatives could link service organizations to a community’s culture of wellness in ways that would facilitate DSPs’ fulfillment of wellness roles and responsibilities for others, as well as their own well-being.

The Role of Supervision and Training

Another component of assisting DSPs to provide stable health and wellness support for individuals with IDD is training and supervision of DSPs. Within the National Frontline Supervisor Competencies (Sedlezky, Reinke, Larson, & Hewitt, 2013) are 16 competencies specifically dedicated to supporting the health and wellness of persons with IDD. In most of the health and wellness competencies, frontline supervisors are to provide guidance to DSPs on their roles and responsibilities related to the following items:

Designing effective and principled guidance to support DSP performance in these areas is very much the work of our time. For instance, the agenda set forth in the Affordable Care Act to improve health care outcomes has increased the readiness of health care practitioners to partner with disability stakeholders on the health of persons with IDD, as well as on clinical-community linkages (to learn more on such linkages see the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research at Investments in health care systems to strengthen these linkages are leading to a variety of care management and care coordination resources that may support the competencies of frontline supervisors and their capacity to provide effective and principled guidance to DSPs.


The roles and activities of DSPs have evolved as a complex and core set of supports for self-determination, freedom, and choice within community service systems. Integrating evidence-based, health management and promotion knowledge into effective guidance for DSPs should build on this foundation. In combination with adopting Worksite Wellness programs, these approaches can support persons with IDD to be well, strengthen service provider organizations’ capacity to recruit and retain DSPs, and contribute to development of community health and wellness resources.


Baicker, K., Cutler, D., & Song, Z. (2010). Workplace wellness programs can generate savings. Health Affairs, 29(2), 304-311.

Kaye, S. H., Chapman, S., Newcomer, R. J., & Harrington, C. (2006). The personal assistance workforce: Trends in supply and demand. Health Affairs, 25(4), 1113-1120.

Kaye, S. H., Harrington, C., & LaPlante, M. P. (2010). Long-term care: Who gets it, who provides it, who pays, and how much? Health Affairs, 29, 11-21.

LaPlante, M. P., Kay, S. H., Kang, T., & Harrington, C. (2004). Unmet need for personal assistance services: Estimating the shortfall in hours of help and adverse consequences. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 59B(2), S98-S108.

Nosek, M. A., Fuhrer, M. J., & Potter, C. (1995). Life satisfaction of people with physical disabilities: Relationship to personal assistance, disability status, and handicap. Rehabilitation Psychology, 40(3), 191-202.

Rimmer, J. H., & Rowland, J. L. (2008). Health promotion for people with disabilities: Implications for empowering the person and promoting disability-friendly environments. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 2(5), 409-420.

Sedlezky, L., Reinke, J., Larson, S., & Hewitt, A. (2013, April). National Frontline Supervisor Competencies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Research and Training Center on Community Living Institute on Community Integration. Retrieved from

Traci, M. A., Seekins, T., & Seninger, S. (2001, October). Relationships between direct service staff turnover and the experience of secondary conditions. Presented at the annual meetings of the American Public Health Association, Atlanta, GA.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (2015). Assessment of health risks with feedback to change employees’ health. The Community Guide. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Meg Traci is Project Director and Research Associate Professor at the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, University of Montana, Missoula. She may be reached at or 406/243-4956. Tom Seekins is Director of the RTC on Disability in Rural Communities, and Professor with the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities. He may be reached at



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Citation: Traci, M., Hsieh, K., Anderson, L., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Winter 2016). Impact: Feature issue on supporting wellness for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, 29(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration and Research and Training Center on Community Living]. Retrieved from

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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