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Let’s Make Our Voices Heard

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Let’s Make Our Voices Heard

by: 
Amy Hewitt, PhD, Director of the Research and Training Center on Community Living, University of Minnesota

I had the opportunity to attend the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) third annual conference in September. It was awe inspiring to see direct support professionals (DSPs) networking, learning, and having fun together. Moreover, it was exciting to hear their stories of commitment, competence, and enthusiasm for their profession. They were challenged by many excellent presenters to provide authentic, person-centered supports to the people with disabilities with whom they work so they can have opportunities to live, participate, and thrive in their communities. They were challenged to think about what community living means, and does not mean.

Community living and participation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is about:

• Where and with whom a person lives;

• Where a person works and how they earn a living;

• The financial resources available to a person the individual;

• What a person does during the day;

• The quality of relationships a person desires and has with others;

• What and with whom a person does things of personal interest,

• A person’s individual’s health and well-being (physical and emotional);

• If, where, and with whom a person they practices meet their faith;

• A person’s interest and opportunity to engage in learning and personal growth;

• Opportunities and ability for a person to make informed decisions about and determine the direction of their own life; and

• The human right to assume roles and responsibilities as a citizen (e.g. neighbor, taxpayer, voter) given to each person. 

DSPs are the people who make community living and participation possible for people with IDD. Yet they are the least often recognized, the most poorly paid and trained, and the first to receive blame when something goes wrong. For the past 30+ years we have been working at the Research and Training Center on Community Living to improve this reality.

While many positive changes have happened over the past 20 years related to the this workforce (e.g. NADSP exists, there is a national conference designed for DSPs, there are many competency-based training programs available, there is a common occupational title, and there is national DSP recognition week), there is MUCH more that needs to happen. DSPs need to earn 30% more than they do now. They need affordable health care benefits. They need better working conditions and supervision. They need better training and more opportunities for professional development. They need their work to be more valued not only by their organizations but also by neighbors and communities as well.

We have been trying to solve these complex issues for a very long time. To make this happen, I urged DSPs to call each and every elected official in their community – at the local, state, and national levels. I pleaded with them to do this NOT just during DSP week and NOT just on Disability Day at the capitol organized by their bosses. If each and every DSP (2 million strong) called once a month and shared their story about what they do to support people with developmental disabilities – their needs and the high-skilled nature of their job, the risks they take, the ethical decisions they make, the problem solving they have to do, and the autonomy they are required to work under – it would make the MOST difference.

Elected officials do not understand what DSPs do and the skills they need to do it. They think DSPs are only caregivers, when in fact their roles include special education teacher, counselor, trainer, nurse, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, and more. DSPs are much more than caregivers and elected officials need to know this.

If your organization employs DSPs, support them in sharing their stories about the important work they do with their elected officials. Make a difference by empowering DSP’s to advocate for themselves. It really matters.

To find out who represents you at a state level, visit: https://www.congress.gov/state-legislature-websites

To find out who represents you at the national level, visit: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find/