In a rare show of bipartisan agreement, the U.S. Senate has designated next week as “National Direct Support Professionals Week.” This begs the question, who are these direct support professionals, and why do they get their own week?
These professionals are the workers who provide in-home and community care to enable people with disabilities to live more independent lives. They provide essential and sometimes difficult services, many of which were not expected in the years when people with disabilities lived in institutional settings. In institutions, DSPs provided basic care – bathing, toiletry skills, feeding, behavioral management. Now we also expect them to work closely with families, communicate medical needs to physicians and provide follow-up care, teach independent living skills and develop meaningful community activities that will connect people with disabilities to the wider community.
With the breadth of services that these professionals provide, you would think they would be highly trained and compensated appropriately for the complexity of their job. However, most states and agencies have not developed comprehensive training programs for DSPs. Many agencies in Colorado require competency only in a few basic areas, such as CPR and first aid, human care and treatment, and medication administration.
Because of inadequate funding for most disability programs, compensation also is lacking. In Colorado, community DSPs make 49 percent of the state hourly wage. The professionals who work in community settings also make only 70 percent of the wages paid to DSPs who work for the state in congregate and institutional settings. We have yet to put our money where our values are.
The combination of these factors – difficult work, inconsistent training and low wages – have created what many are calling a crisis in the disabilities field. High turnover of DSPs causes disruption and stress for families and individuals with disabilities. Agencies that serve people with disabilities spend much of their time training new DSPs and may lose as much as 75 percent of their experienced work force each year. And the crisis is only getting worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that 1 million new DSPs will be needed by 2016.
During National DSP week, we not only celebrate the essential tasks these workers provide, but we spotlight the changes that need to happen in this field. Organizations such as the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals advocate for enhanced status for DSPs; better access to high quality education, including a national credentialing process; and legislation and funding that supports better wages, benefits and career paths for people providing in-home and community care.
Community Connections is celebrating its 25th anniversary as the sole provider of developmental disabilities services in Southwest Colorado by honoring the Direct Support Profesionals of past, present and future. On Sept. 16, Durango Mayor Michael Rendon, who once worked as a Community Connection DSP, will kick off a celebration of these professionals at Three Springs.
For more information about this event or how to get involved in advocating for fair wages and increased status for DSPs, call Community Connections at 259-2464.
Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.