Self-Advocate Sentinel: The Jailer and the Coach



by Melanie Hecker, MPA

Imagine there are two advertisements for Direct Support Professional positions. One posting reads “Looking for full-time Direct Support Professional to be an authority over developmentally disabled clients. Main responsibilities include scolding the clients, controlling them, and keeping them in line”. The other posting reads “Looking for full-time Direct Support Professional to ensure the well-being and happiness of developmentally disabled consumers. Main responsibilities include supporting consumers in their goals and providing assistance with life skills when requested”.

On the surface, these two job descriptions seem completely different. However, these two postings are actually the exact same job viewed through two different lenses: the Jailer Model and the Coach Model.

Traditionally, direct service agencies and providers consider their primary role as one of authority. They seek to focus most of their energy on punishing misbehavior and delivering orders to their consumers. This authority is considered to be absolute: consumers are not allowed to question their providers or make recommendations about their care. Self-advocacy, whether it consists of making suggestions about one’s own care or defending oneself after mistreatment, is considered a form of misbehavior. By extension, everything about service content or delivery is decided by the provider. Consumers are assumed to deserve no say in their care.

The attitudes described here stem from viewing people with I/DD as inferior, child-like, or animal-like. A view of people with I/DD as inferior causes jailer-minded service providers to not consider why a person with I/DD is behaving in a manner seen as undesirable. When service providers views consumers as merely people with behaviors which need to be corrected, respecting a consumer is not even considered. This lack of respect can be called the “Jailer Model” because service provider with this mindset views themselves in relation to their consumers the same way a jailer views themselves in relation to their prisoners.

It is obvious that this mindset is a far from ideal way to administer developmental or intellectual disability services. All human behavior is the result of underlying context. Ignoring this context will result in the consumer’s needs not being met. When the consumer’s needs are desires are not met, the true cause of the behavior will never be resolved. Denying consumers any respect, input or autonomy is also deeply dehumanizing.  Despite these glaring flaws, many direct service agencies still possess organizational cultures which embrace “jailer” style mindsets. Thankfully, other agencies are choosing to take a different approach in the how they view their roles.

Many agencies who serve people with developmental and intellectual disabilities have chosen to take a more progressive approach to how they view their roles. These agencies view their staff not as authorities who seek to keep their consumers in line, but as helpers who seek to assist their consumers with life goals which the consumer has set themselves. To ensure they are working towards these life goals, these staff actively seek feedback and self-advocacy from their consumers. This encouragement of self-advocacy is based on a recognition that people with disabilities are human beings who are simply living in a world that is not designed for them. Recognizing this fact leads staff to respect their consumers and view them as equal members of society. An equal partnership between consumer and provider is key for maintaining this view. This model of service delivery can be referred to as the “Coach Model” because direct service providers are helping the consumers on the consumer’s own terms.

“Coach” Direct Service Providers (DSP) may still notice behaviors in their consumers that they find problematic. However, unlike a “Jailer”, a “Coach” DSP will attempt to discover the root cause of the behavior instead of discipling their consumer. Coaches realize that this root cause may be the result of something that they themselves are doing towards the consumer. A “Jailer” mindset results in a cycle where the service provider takes actions which upset or harm the consumer, eliciting “bad behavior” from the consumer. The “Jailer” will then punish the consumer for their behavior, reinforcing the cycle. “Coaches” realize that self-introspection is key to serving the consumer’s needs and fostering mutual respect. Coaches will also not interfere with behaviors that do not cause any harm, such as non-self-injurious stims or perceived “rudeness”.  

People with disabilities are ultimately just like anyone else. They have a need for respect, autonomy, and a say in their own lives. While the Jailer Model causes service providers to deny these needs to their consumers, the Coach Model actively promotes them. In the next article, we will discuss how to create a “culture of coaching” in your organization.

Jailer Model

Coach Model

Service provider as authority, disciplinarian

Service provider as helper, assistant

Main role is to punish, control

Main role is to help

Based in pathology paradigm/medical model

Based in neurodiversity paradigm/social model

On the provider's terms

On the consumer's terms

Punishes self-advocacy

Encourages self-advocacy

Consumers are not worthy of respect

Consumer/Provider relationship is based on mutual respect