March is Women’s History Month. It also happens to be National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Month. The coincidence places a spotlight on a profession that people with intellectual disabilities depend on to help them obtain a better quality of life. It’s a profession dominated by women, and as such it is taken for granted. It’s the field of Direct Support Professionals, the DSPs.
They may be known by other titles, but the work that DSPs do is the same: It includes everything from assisting intellectually disabled individuals with personal care (bathing, toileting, dressing, grooming, eating) to finding and taking them to social and recreational activities that they might never experience otherwise. They help those who want employment find work and job training. They sometimes serve as counselors to those clients who feel they have no one else with which to discuss their problems or concerns, not even friends or family. Many DSPs have been trained in first aid and CPR, what to do when a client has a seizure, how to calm down a client who has a temper tantrum , becomes hysterical, or behaves in a manner that could endanger the client and other people in the vicinity.
Eighty-nine percent of the DSP workforce is composed of women. Forty percent of the women are white, 30 percent are Black, 16 percent are Latinx, and seven percent are”Other.” Their average age is 42. Approximately 880,000 full time DSPs serve roughly 1.4 million people with intellectual disabilities. Thirty percent of the DSP workforce is part time, or 1,276,000 employees.
Of the 1.4 million people with intellectual disabilities that DSPs serve, one in five are white, one in four are Black, three in ten are Native American.
Given all that they do, one would think that DSPs would be amply compensated for their work in the form of livable incomes. But the average DSP wage is $11.76 an hour, an amount which has not kept pace with rising food and housing costs. Many DSPs are on public assistance just to make ends meet, or they’re working two or more jobs. According to the spring 2019 edition of Impact, the newsletter of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, DSPs earn less than a family of four living below the federally defined poverty level.
So they leave their jobs in droves. The annual turnover rate is 46%. Thirty eight percent leave after less than six months on the job; 21 percent leave between six and 12 months. DSP vacancy rates are high, which means adults with intellectual disabilities, their families or guardians, wait months for more to be hired and trained to provide them with desperately needed assistance.
In many states, advocates for DSPs and the disability community have demonstrated and lobbied their governors and legislatures to increase DSP wages. Maryland’s state Senate Finance Committee recently passed a bill that would gradually increase DSP wages over six fiscal years, beginning with FY21 at five percent; FY 22 at five percent; FY23 at 4.5 percent; FY24 at 4 percent; FY25 at 4 percent, and FY26 at 3 percent. The bill heads to the full Senate for a final vote.
There’s a saying among DSPs that everyone is only one stroke away from being disabled. And that’s when DSPs would finally be appreciated. Don’t wait for the unthinkable to happen. Call on your states’ legislators and tell them that those women who work to enable intellectually disabled individuals to live lives of dignity, relative independence and respect, deserve some dignity and respect themselves. Their work needs to be recognized through wages they can actually live on.