Op-Ed | It’s Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week: Time to invest in a workforce providing essential services to individuals with disabilities

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Every day across New York state, more than 500,000 Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) show up for our community. A majority of DSPs are women and people of color. This workforce provides the critical care and supports necessary to help more than 120,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities remain in their homes, live in and be a part of their communities, obtain employment, and maintain their independence.

Throughout the pandemic, DSPs have been on the often-forgotten frontlines, caring for those who are sick, keeping individuals safe and engaged, helping maintain a sense of normalcy, and being available 24-hours a day for those living in congregate settings. DSPs demonstrate compassion, sensitivity, and patience. They often put the needs of those they support first, and are champions in helping people reach their fullest potential. Simply put, DSPs are heroes.

As we celebrate National Direct Support Professionals Recognition Week (Sept. 12 – 18), it is time to invest in this essential workforce. Governor Kathy Hochul and state legislators must finally commit the resources necessary to provide DSPs with an equitable wage and competitive benefits so they can pursue their chosen career and comfortably provide for their families. Furthermore, the New York Congressional delegation should support President Biden’s proposed $400 billion investment into Home and Community Based Services in his Better Care Better Jobs Act.  

Nonprofit providers are increasingly challenged to recruit and retain the skilled direct support staff necessary to meet the urgent needs of people with disabilities. The primary reasons can be attributed to the lack of a consistent financial investment in this essential workforce and the implementation of the $15 minimum wage, resulting in wages for DSPs being kept at or slightly above the minimum wage. The responsibilities of DSPs are broad and complex, and they should be recognized and compensated for such. According to a recent survey conducted by New York Disability Advocates, nearly 74 percent of organizations have more vacant DSP positions than before the pandemic and nearly half of surveyed agencies have had to close programs or reduce operations due to these staffing shortages.

Without adequate funding, nonprofit organizations will continue to face this dire workforce crisis and essential, life altering services and care for individuals with disabilities will be jeopardized. Our direct support professionals and the individuals they support are counting on us to act. We can and we must do better.

Matthew Sturiale is President & CEO of Birch Family Services, a nonprofit providing education and community supports to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in New York City. He can be reached at matt.sturiale@birchfamilyservices.org.

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