The State of America’s Direct Support Workforce Crisis 2022
In the fall of 2006, I was fresh out of high school and without a sense of purpose. I had spent that summer working at a dollar store for barely more than minimum wage. My hands were calloused from opening cardboard boxes and stocking shelves. I first took a job as a direct support professional (DSP) that year because I thought it would be a fun change of pace from menial work in retail, food service or industry. I didn’t think of this as a future career, but it was fun, rewarding, challenging in a good way and more interesting than operating a cash register. Over the next several years I fell in love with the job, the people and the person I had become through this work.
With a few years of experience (and maturity) under my belt, I was offered an advancement to an entry-level management position. I was nervous but I accepted. To my surprise I excelled in this area and I enjoyed it as well. It gave me a chance to get know more people and to positively impact more lives. Ten years later I was working as the Program Director for a small agency in Northeast Tennessee. I had only recently taken the job, but I recognized immediately that I had the good fortune of an Executive Director who was innovative, ambitious and creative. She gave me the freedom to grow professionally, to learn from my mistakes, and to self-manage.
All of this freedom was a blessing, but still I was struggling to figure out where to go next. I wanted to challenge myself, lest I run the risk of becoming stagnant.
It was around this time that we became ANCOR members and I first heard about the ANCOR Foundation Leadership Academy. The first year of the program was accepting applications. Perfect, I thought. I readily applied with the full backing of my employer and with a renewed sense of enthusiasm.
It was also around this time that the State of Tennessee was launching an Enabling Technology initiative. We immediately viewed this as an alternative to the one-size-fits-all, protection model of support that we had been stuck with for many years. The initiative seemed a natural fit with our “outside-the-box” thinking, our desire to innovate and our ambition to push boundaries. If there’s one thing we viewed as a threat, it was becoming complacent. So suddenly I went from the honeymoon phase of my new job, the full weight of the workload not yet pressing down upon me, to taking on these two new major initiatives. I was certainly busy, but at least I wasn’t bored.
Over the next two years I had the opportunity to attend the ANCOR Conference twice and to meet scores of other professionals just like myself, both up-and-comers and experts alike. I found out that regardless of the state or the job title, we had more things in common than not. I even had the honor of presenting at the ANCOR Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year.
Through my work with Enabling Technology and through the expertise offered by ANCOR’s partners, I realized that we were often over-supporting people and standing in the way of true community connection. I learned that, with the aid of technology and a little creativity, we could customize services and provide truly person-centered supports.
This knowledge, it turns out, and our journey toward this revelation, was information that other people wanted to hear. All of this innovation, scary though it may be, was grabbing the attention of people around the country. I’ve had the opportunity to share our journey at conferences in Virginia Beach, Nashville, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Portland and more. After our presentation at the ANCOR Conference, I have been invited to share our story at several more events across the eastern US, including the annual CQL conference. It has been a great pleasure to meet other people struggling to adapt to this changing concept like us, and to push the boundaries of traditional support.
One of the connections I made through the ANCOR Foundation Leadership Academy was with GoodLife Innovations, a provider agency in Kansas City, Missouri. After attending their presentation, we were impressed by their years of experience using technology to provide intermittent support to people living in the community. Rather than making people fit into existing service models, GoodLife was making the service model fit the dreams and ambitions of the people they support. Support was being provided when it was needed and wanted, not 24 hours a day through invasive, live-in paid supports. We were invited to visit GoodLife’s facilities in Missouri to see first-hand how they had created a paradigm shift within their system.
It has been a long two years, but I certainly am not the person I was when I started this journey, and nor are we the same provider agency. Our work has been recognized nationally and we have been held up as leaders within our state. As I look toward the next two years, I see a future where the outdated notions of paid support for people with intellectual disabilities give way to an era of person-centered lives, guided only by the people living them. Every opportunity that we take for granted should be afforded to the people that we support, including the chance to take risks, to fail and to learn from mistakes.
My biggest takeaway from my time in the ANCOR Foundation Leadership Academy—even more valuable than the expertise received through webinars, presentations and professional connections—is the lesson that I should never stop growing, never stop learning and never be satisfied with the status quo. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know. I look forward to being a part of the revolutionary changes in direct support in the coming decades and continuing to partner with ANCOR in this endeavor.
Nick Filarelli is Program Director for Core Services of Northeast Tennessee and a member of the inaugural cohort of the ANCOR Foundation’s Leadership Academy.