This month, the Administration of Community Living released an excellent history of home and community services. The report, called 30 Years of Community Living, chronicles the services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from 1987-2017. For me, this period of time represents all the years I had direct responsibility to develop these kinds of programs and ensure that the people we engaged were given an opportunity to live their best lives. Looking back, it’s interesting to see how far we’ve come in supporting people in our programs, yet how far we still need to go in championing the workforce needed to support them.
In my early years of managing community programs, I realized my job was simple: make sure that the direct support professionals had all the training, tools, and supports to deliver their best and make decisions independently. Over the years, I’ve seen direct support professionals tackle some big challenges and create wonderful opportunities. I saw people with disabilities leave institutions and discover decision making well into their senior years of life because of the support they received from DSPs.
In all these years, I also chased turnover.
Respect for the DSP Role
If you think about other human service roles, it is expected that someone will enter the job and spend their whole working career in that same role. Take the role of a nurse. Nurses are trained, credentialed, and supported to be nurses for life, and many will do just that. Most of us have a story to tell of the nurse who helped us in some way. Maybe it was the school nurse who patched you up from a playground fall. Maybe it was the nurse who got you through the delivery of your children. Maybe it was the nurse who helped you truly understand some complex information a doctor rattled off in a hurry. We can all be grateful for these nurses. They keep learning; they keep you in focus. Pay for nurses does fall behind at times, but there is positive pressure to keep it respectful for the value they deliver. There are specialties in nursing, and there are career tracks. And nurses have choices.
How often have we thought of direct support professionals in the same light? Their jobs often require them to navigate complex positions as not only caregivers, but as advocates and role models—helping those they support to be as empowered as possible throughout their lives. Many become more than just support staff to the people they work with…they become family. All the pressure in the country has not resulted in respect for the DSP worker. And we have yet to conclude that we need to better train, credential, and support DSPs to deliver what we need them to do well.
Pay Should Reflect the Responsibilities of the DSP
Our expectations for these staff members have changed greatly since I entered the field as a DSP in 1977. If you look deeply at their role, they are teachers, counselors, nurses, compliance managers, and emergency responders.
If you speak with someone who loves the work and does it well, they will tell you they have found their calling. They love their job. It is wonderful work to impact the lives of people who need someone in their corner. It feels so good to make sure people are truly included in meaningful life opportunities. But in the next breath, that same person—who loves their work and believes in providing this essential service to our neighbor with disabilities—may tell you they need to leave it to drive a truck, work in a medical office, or do warehouse work for Amazon because the pay is just not enough to make ends meet.
Now the problem is not just turnover. We struggle to attract replacement workers. We still only have on-the-job training. And we simply do not have enough people who meet the job requirements. As a society, we have a crisis of enormous proportion that threatens our ability to meet current and future needs.
In reality, all work should provide meaning in your life. The real WHY must be clear and fit your personal strengths and hopes to make an impact in the world. But with DSP work, we are way overdue to recognize it with the pay that says “this work can be your life.”
What It Takes to Make the Necessary Changes
Someone once said it takes a village to make a shift. This challenge will take the entire country. As a nation, we need to pause and define the outcomes we want. Then, once these outcomes are clear, we need to make bold changes. By the time the Administration of Community Living releases their next 30-year report, I hope we’ve changed the way we support not just the people in our programs, but the essential workforce, too.
by Marian Baldini
KenCrest President & CEO