Here’s to those who help people with disabilities thrive

Sept. 10-16 is National Direct Support Professionals Week. DSP Week celebrates and honors a segment of our workforce that is often invisible to the general public. As I try to do every year at this time, I want to shine some light on these stars in our community.

A Direct Support Professional – or “DSP” – is a person who assists an individual with disabilities to thrive in their community. DSP’s can provide a variety of supports: helping people get ready for their day, meet their medical needs, engage in their communities, maintain a household and access other resources to live a fulfilling life. It’s a challenging and rewarding job, as DSP’s are often working alongside people with disabilities through all the ups and downs of their lives.

I talk to people with disabilities who have hired Community Connections to provide them with these supports, and they always reflect that their relationship with their DSP’s is at the core of how they feel about themselves and how successful they are in reaching their goals. Fancy facilities and piles of paperwork (a necessary evil) are meaningless in comparison with the impact people have on each other. Look at the human condition; this shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

It disturbs me to see how little recognition DSP’s receive from the policymakers and funders who should support them. Medicaid is the major funder for most services where DSP’s are employed. Employers have no power in determining what they charge for the services they provide; these rates are set by state lawmakers and are constrained by the limits of Medicaid funding. As a result, rates have stagnated, providing far less than the cost-of-living requires and DSP’s deserve.

An effective DSP must participate in significant amounts of training and comply with a wide variety of regulations. DSP’s must know how to think on their feet, respond to ever-changing conditions and act as a coach and guide. In cases where an individual with disabilities has high medical needs, a DSP can literally be responsible for the person’s life. Current national trends in DSP wages place them on par with occupations with a far lower level of responsibility, such as food-preparation workers and housekeepers.

As a result, turnover rates for DSP’s are astronomical, topping 45 percent per year. Providers cannot find enough employees to provide the services needed by individuals with disabilities. It’s a workforce crisis.

The situation in Southwest Colorado unfortunately mirrors the crisis on the national scale. Starting wages for DSP’s are $10.50 an hour after training. Recruiting and retaining high-quality employees is a constant battle. Employees who love the work they do and show exceptional talent often leave simply because they cannot make ends meet.

DSP Recognition Week is a time for Community Connections to celebrate the people who work for us. More importantly, it is a chance for us to recruit the rest of you in our campaign to ensure that these crucial members of our community get the support they deserve.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.