The State of America’s Direct Support Workforce Crisis 2022
Angela received a standing ovation when she kicked off ANCOR’s 2017 Annual Conference with these words. We wanted to share them here for anyone who missed her in San Antonio this May.
I want to take the time this afternoon to identify two of our emerging challenges that I believe have more to do with ideology than regulation and more to with the art of compromise than partisan politics.
You know I grew up in Alabama, and now I live in Texas. I grew up in the George Wallace era, in the midst of racial unrest and I clearly remember the Birmingham bombing and the integration of my school when I was in the 6th grade. I have relatives scattered throughout the south, and I had hoped that we had really overcome, that equality was moving from rhetoric to reality, that everyone was valued as a human being and fellow citizen of the world. Lately, it has been difficult to continue to have that optimistic world view and we find ourselves, once again, advocating for inclusion and equality for the people we support.
I find myself fighting against the emerging scarcity mentality that seems to insist that the pie is not big enough. That the feeling that “you” got what was rightly mine and that the only way my children with get “theirs” is if I take it from you. I am not Pollyanna and I do firmly believe that our business models must change, but I also fundamentally believe that there is enough for all of us and that equality can be a reality if we are thoughtful and re-engage in respectful dialogue and compromise. My Dad, Clyde, living in Alabama and he is true to his name and all the attributes you might imagine go with his era in the deep South. A couple of years ago, I was talking to him a few days before Thanksgiving and he was bemoaning the state of the world…” our country is going to hell in a handbasket, the future for my grandchildren is grim, I just don’t know how they will get out from under this debt” and so on. After listening to about 15 minutes of this, I had had enough. I said “Dad, you are in good health, at the end of the month you don’t have to choose between food and medications, your mind is good, your children and your grandchildren are healthy. I think you should start counting your blessing and for god’s sake turn off Fox news!”
Quite frankly, I find some of the current discourse alarming, the emergence of fake facts, let’s believe everything we see on Facebook (when did that get to be a news source??) and words that are being added to our vocabulary, when did the word “illegal” become a noun??
I believe this is an opportunity for each of us individually and ANCOR collectively to stay true to our values. As one board member stated “we are not going to eat our young”. If we win at the direct expense of the frail elderly, or people with severe mental illness, will we have really “won”? This is the time where we offer reasonable comprises and alternatives that allow as much choice as possible while preserving an equitable system of supports. I believe ANCOR represents those values and I know that our leadership has struggled to find compromises that preserve our commitment to people with intellectual disabilities as well as sustainable business models for our members. In the midst of often contentious, divisive political rhetoric we have developed bi-partisan positions that continue to focus on our desired future while acknowledging our need for change. I encourage you to continue to lend your time and resources to our efforts as we continue discussions with our political representatives. We are making a difference with our untied efforts!
The second issue I would like to briefly highlight has been ANCOR’s focus for the past decade as we recognize the importance of our DSP workforce, their need for a living wage and benefits and the direct link they provide between an individual with intellectual disabilities and their community. I begin my career as a DSP, working in both the state institution and later a group home. That’s where I begin to value the work of supporting people with disabilities. I understand that without this valuable workforce, our service system will collapse and people with disabilities and their families will suffer the consequences. Recent articles have highlighted the shortage of workers, the difficulties with pay scales and the resulting turnover and vacancies. While we applaud the opportunity to use technology and natural supports to supplement staffing needs; as one of my colleagues in senior services says there is still a need for “a person has to pick Grandma up off the floor”.
Certainly there are many things that a person, a DSP, is needed for in order to keep individuals safe, to ensure basic needs like food and hygiene are met and certainly to insure meaningful lives. Whether its help in obtaining employment, going to the movie or simply eating lunch, thousands of people with disabilities depend on thousands of DSPs every hour or every day.
I have a good friend with Parkinson’s and as I watched her decline over the years, with increasing falls, inability to drive herself and now, anxiety and confusion. I know the day is fast approaching for her to need a DSP or face moving out of her home into a supportive care option, where, again she will need DSPs to get through her day. It is not a question of adequate workforce for our jobs today, but the question of enough folks for the future to sustain and expand to accommodate all of us, who because of disabilities will need supports. That’s why ANCOR has been raising the alarm about this need for the past decade, and while we continue to present data indicating the severity of this shortage and the need for increased wages and benefits for this much needed workforce.
While ANCOR has been singing this song for years, we now have new partners opening their hymnbook to join with us! Senior care providers, home health agencies, nursing homes, even private pay agencies are presenting the same song, not enough DSPs, not enough pay and simply not enough recognition for this prized workforce! We are in the process of updating our data, presenting to new legislative representatives and senators, educating new agency leaders and urging all our members to participate in these activities. Perhaps, not everyone identifies with a person with a disability and their family, but I believe that every representative we elect has someone in their immediate family who depends on or will depend on a DSP for assistance if not for survival. This is a message that ANCOR will continue to deliver as our quality of care depends on it.
I don’t think it is unexpected to see record numbers of you registered for this conference. And I don’t believe it is because of our Texas hospitality or our wining sports teams! I think you are here because you know there is strength in numbers, in uniting around a common purpose and in delivering a unified message. We are stronger together; that’s why in the era of flat rates and decreasing resources, paying our ANCOR dues remains a priority for Volunteers of America. Without ANCOR, our voice would be diluted and ineffective, but working together we have seen a response to our advocacy with modified proposals, or as in the case of record healthcare reform, a step back from dismantling Medicaid and reducing funds for the supports that millions of people with intellectual disabilities and their families depend upon each day. We need each other, now more than ever, and not just for a drink in the bar to discuss our shared misery, but to work together toward common solutions and compromises that will move us toward the equality I spoke about earlier. I am not too tried (I may qualify for the senior discount, but I can still speak, I can still march and I can certainly still advocate) to join in this movement, and I don’t believe you have lost your zeal to advocate to improve the system of supports that will enable all of us to fully participate in our communities. Now more than ever, we need each other to speak up for those whose future depends on the decisions being made today.