BY: Kevin Nunez; NJCDD Council Member
I wanted to raise awareness to a very big problem in our world today. It rarely gets any publicity; the average person doesn’t even know about it. The truth is unless you are affected by this problem, you don’t even know it exists. The problem is the lack of pay and benefits for direct support professionals (DSPs). What is a DSP? A direct support professional is someone who is paid through a provider agency or an individual to provide support and care to a person with a disability. As long as there are people who need assistance in their lives there will always be need for these professionals. There are four groups of people who are affected by this issue. They are: the individuals receiving the care, the family of the individual, the providers, and the professionals themselves.
Let me begin by addressing the individuals receiving the care. People that have a disability will learn that they often must depend on others to assist them in one way or another. They depend on the kindness of others to help them live their day-to-day lives. Could you trust someone with your most intimate tasks if you knew they would leave in six months? Just imagine knowing you’re going to lose the person you most confide in, even before they start. People with disabilities can tell almost immediately if the person is going to be good at their job. Most of all they can tell if the person will last.
Use your imagination for this next part please. You meet a person named Matt. After meeting him for only four hours, you need a shower. He must first undress you completely. Then he puts you in a shower chair. He then proceeds to give you a shower. Matt does his best to wash your private areas. After finishing and drying you off, he begins to dress you. If the individual is so fortunate, he can direct Matt on how and what to do. The truth is there are many individuals in the disability community that cannot speak for themselves. Therefore, Matt must try to interpret what they are trying to communicate. This is just one of the many duties of a DSP. I hope this brief example can illustrate the need for these very special people.
Next, I would like to talk about the direct support professionals themselves. These professionals receive about 10 to 11 dollars an hour with no promise of growth in their career. Most providers offer little to no benefits at all (this includes sick time or health insurance). As a result if DSPs don’t work, they aren’t paid. This leads to severe burnout. Many times, they sacrifice their own health and well-being to make sure they can provide for their family and/or pay their bills. It’s ironic that they are responsible for the health and well-being of another human when, due to the lack of health benefits such as sick days, they cannot take care of their own health needs. What inevitably happens is the person leaves to another company in hopes of a dollar more. People believe they can use this job as a steppingstone toward a larger career goal. The other misconception is this job will only be a temporary solution until another opportunity opens up. They end up living paycheck to paycheck. The professional waits in limbo until they burn out or they get another job.
So why would someone do this job at all? These wonderful people do it because they care for others. They look forward to the moments when their individual lights up when they arrive in the morning for their shift. The relationship between an individual and the professional is truly symbiotic if done correctly. The individual gets a companion to help them with their wants and needs. In turn the professional should receive joy in the knowledge they are doing something to help someone live their life. Some things are worth more than money. It is truly heartbreaking when it is time for the professional to move on. The best way I know to describe this feeling for an individual, it’s like losing a loved one. For the professional, they are left with the memories of a person that has worked their way into their hearts.
The family and/or parents of an individual can also be affected by the DSP issue. Try to imagine having a 25-year-old son that you have cared for his entire life. One day someone shows up at your door ready to take him out to the park for the day. You as the parent are told almost nothing about the person who will be supporting your child for the rest of the day. By the same token, the professional knows almost nothing about the individual and the family they will be supporting. Most times both parties are just given a name with a brief description. A relationship of trust has to be formed out of thin air. This sadly is one of the best-case scenarios. Most individuals as they get older lose their family and the professional becomes, by default, their brother, mother, etc. Depending on the individual’s disability, they will rely on their “families” in almost every way. They need an advocate, a caregiver, and a friend. Could you imagine learning to give your complete trust to a stranger every six months?
The final group of people that are affected by the DSP issue are the provider agencies. The turnover rate in this industry is incredibly high. Providers cannot keep their staff. They spend money training these professionals and then they quit a few months later. The money is lost. The rates for these staff and providers have not been increased in approximately 10 years. For example if the state allows $15 per hour to a provider, and $10 goes towards the DSP, that leaves the provider with only five dollars to spend subsequent overhead, including important items like gloves and vehicle maintenance. The providers cannot give their staff benefits or raises if they are barely able to keep themselves above water.
The direct support professional problem in my humble opinion has reached crisis levels not just statewide but nationally as well. As long as there are people, people will always need care. This industry is not going away any time soon. The system will never be perfect but something needs to be done now. This needs to be a call to action. We need to contact our state and federal officials to educate them on this very real problem. If we don’t act now people with disabilities may not have people around us to help us live our lives.