Developmental Service Work is a healthcare occupation that not a lot of people know about and is frequently confused with more common roles (like personal support work.) However, working as a DSW is considered by many as one of the most rewarding experiences in the field, as it makes a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities and developmental difficulties.
To speak about the perks of working as a DSW and what this job really entails, we spoke to Brett Boutilier, an experienced worker in this field for nearly 10 years and a successful user of the Caring Support platform. This is what he told us.
To listen to the podcast version of this interview, click here or search for "The Caring Support Podcast" on any major podcast streaming services!
Brett Boutilier: As developmental service workers, we work with individuals that have developmental disabilities or some sort of physical disability. That can range from people with autism, Down's syndrome, people that might have cerebral palsy, or that are maybe in wheelchairs. Also, a lot of times now DSWs are getting into the field of mental health as well. It's a great field to get into and such a rewarding field to be in.
BB: It's a funny story. When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a vet tech. I love animals, so I wanted to be like in the vet kind of side of things. When I was in high school, I was in a co-op placement, but I was away on vacation and when I came back, the vet clinic spot was already taken, so I couldn't go there. So the only other place they had was either in a school with people or individual students that had disabilities, or I could work in some conservation area. Outdoor work with labour and all that; that's not me. So I went for the school board. I had no idea what I was walking into. Growing up, people with disabilities, you didn't really hear much about it. So I tried it.
I went and I fell in love. I knew that's exactly what I wanted to do. And so actually, I went to school for it. I did a year of Child Youth Worker Program first, but it was more mental health, like homeless population, and all that kind of stuff. (Back then) I never heard about the DSW program, but I knew I need to find something that was more developmental. Then I found out about the developmental service worker program. I took it and I've been in the field for almost nine years now.
BB: DSWs are not registered. To work in the field, you just have to go to school. Most colleges have DSW programs and normally the regular program is two years, but they also have an accelerated program, and that is only a year program. But I would suggest people take the two-year program to take all the classes and to learn as much as they can to get in this field.
There are a lot of jobs out there. There's a lot of need for DSWs. So it is a great field to get into.
BB: A lot of people don't actually know what DSWs are. So a lot of times when I introduce myself or they ask what I do for work and I say I'm a DSW, they just automatically think I'm a PSW, and that I work with the elderly and whatnot.
The PSW job is also very rewarding and very time-consuming and very hard, but as a PSW I think you only do one year of schooling, where we do two years of school. And I'm not trying to compete with PSWs, but DSWs, we are more, as I said, on the developmental side. We work with individuals with disabilities where the PSWs are all the elderly kind of side of things.
And as DSWs, we get trained on how to give medication. Whereas PSWs don't have that training. So there's a lot of like people just assume that we're PSWs and no, we are DSWs so it's kind of confusing there.
BB: There are definitely more PSWs in the field, I think. And as I said, a lot of people don't know what DSWs are. When I first started, a lot of people had no idea what Developmental Service Work is, but now that I've been in the field for almost ten years, it's becoming more of a known career choice and people want to go to school for DSW. So I think now it's becoming more popular, which is good because there are a lot of jobs and a lot of need for this.
BB: I'd say, the first thing is to get into this field if you love to care for people; if you want to help people. You have to have that caring nature. A lot of times you see people get into this field because they think it's an easy job and it pays or whatever. That's people that go into the field for the wrong reason.
You have to be caring, you have to want to help people. Also, you have to have a lot of patience because a lot of times people with disabilities can be very stubborn and they test your patience. So if you don't have a lot of patience, I don't think this is the field for you. You also have to have a lot of drive and a lot of initiative. You have to think on your feet a lot. You have to do problem-solving. Sometimes there are a lot of problems that come up and you have to use that quick thinking, judgment, and problem-solving right away, whereas some people might have that problem with they can't think right away or think on their feet.
It can be a very tough job depending on where you work, but I would say the main qualities are basically patience, that caring nature, and then just the initiative and wanting to help people. If you don't have patience, don't get into DSW, just don't. Unfortunately, it's not going to be for you.
BB: So for DSWs, we don't have a wide range of places we can work. Basically, the main kind of area where people tend to go is the school board system, where you can be hired as an educational assistant to help students with academics. These students maybe have autism or some sort of learning disability. Maybe they just can't process quickly or maybe they have trouble learning. You help kids who are maybe in grade one but function at, say, kindergarten level and need that extra kind of support.
Also, I would say, nowadays working in the field you see a lot more behaviours with students that can physically hit you or physically throw objects at you, and even spit at you, call you names. That's when the patience comes in too because when you work with individuals with behaviours, a lot of times they look for reactions. You can't react to them. A lot of times you have to sit there and not respond at all or just, you know, redirect with simple words. Overall, the school board can be a very difficult job to be in. It is a physically demanding job. Actually, I think there's a study out there that shows that. EAs, educational assistants, have one of the top WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) claims because of how a lot of people are injured on those jobs, because of how physically aggressive students can be.
The school board is a great job for people with families, parents, because you get the summers off, it's only Monday to Friday, and it's a day job. So a lot of people get into the EA world because it has those perks. So there's that side and then you go to the group homes. So group homes are basically homes that will house up to one person. Sometimes I think the cap is five. Basically, they all live in the house, and you support them. Some people in houses might have behaviours. You need to know the strategies to calm down these individuals and all of that. And then there's the medical side. There might be some homes where you need to help with lifting them out of their wheelchair to their bed or into the bath and all that kind of stuff. So the group home job is physically demanding. It's like going into their home to help them with laundry, cooking, taking them to their appointments, daily activities, whether that is going to the movies, skating, bowling, etc. Also, giving them their medications on time.
Those are the main two places where DSWs work, the school board or the group home. There are a few other places out there that do hire DSWs. I'm from London, Ontario, so some hospitals will hire DSWs. For instance, I actually worked at Parkwood, where they have what is called a dual diagnosis unit. That is where they treat individuals with a disability, a developmental disability, but also a mental health component as well. So that is what we call dual diagnosis.
Some hospitals, I believe not just in London, but I think Oakville has one and I think Toronto might have one that will hire DSWs to work on their dual diagnosis ward because that individual has that developmental piece. Working on these, I think they call it a ward or a unit, is dealing with individuals with behaviour and sometimes getting attacked. You have to deal with de-escalating the individual.
Sometimes you have to physically restrain the individual in a way that you're not hurting them, they're not hurting you, and you're not hurting yourself. There are different programs out there. There's what is called CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute). There's one that's called NVCI (Nonviolent Crisis Intervention) and then there's the top one that is Safe Management; so there's a bunch of different programs that will kind of help you with de-escalation of the situation and also help you train to restrain people in a proper way.
I currently work on the school board. I also currently work in a group home, and I worked in the hospital setting, so I have experience in all the settings. My final recommendation is that you've got to find your niche. I'm not trying to scare anyone away, but I'm just being honest. Being in the DSW field it's dealing with a lot of young adults, mostly males, to be honest, that are aggressive. So, if you don't mind getting hit and you can look past that behaviour and see that he's a human or she is a human being, you'll understand that sometimes their behaviours aren't because they want to kill you or hurt you. They're behaving because there's some underlying situation that we may not know about, because a lot of times in this field, you deal with people that are nonverbal, they can't vocalize how are they feeling, so sometimes they lash out because they can't communicate. So, once again, this is where the patience comes in. You have to have that patience to know why this person is lashing out and to look past that and just see what a rewarding career and a rewarding field it is to be in, so don't be scared, and get trained properly. With that being said, I wouldn't change my field for the world.
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This is not the first interview that DSW Brett Boutilier gives us. You can read the previous conversation we had with him here. And to find DSW jobs, be sure to sign up to our platform to take advantage of all the employment opportunities posted there by top employers in the healthcare field.
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