Policy Research Brief, Vol. 30, No. 5

Representation of Direct Support Workers in Popular Media

policy research brief, institute on community integration, university of minnesota

Research Issue

The direct support workforce is one of the largest occupations in the United States and is essential in ensuring that individuals with disabilities can live, work, and thrive in their communities. While seen as essential to the people they support and those who understand what they do, descriptions of this workforce vary. Mainstream media does not use consistent language to talk about the role of direct support workers. This inconsistency makes it difficult to communicate the value and complexity of the direct support profession. Misunderstandings of what direct support workers do have a negative effect on those who work in this role and the individuals with disabilities they support.

Study Background

Three databases specializing in popular media –Google News, ProQuest, and Agility – were searched for articles addressing direct support workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, January 1, 2020 – December 20, 2021. At least five articles were collected from each state and Washington, DC. A list of 25 common names for direct support workers was used to focus results. Themes and subthemes were identified and coded in a sample of 25% (132) of the collected articles. The titles to describe direct support workers in an article were categorized by frequency of use. This study was conducted as part of the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota.

Policy Recommendations

  • Create a Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) for direct support professionals.

  • Expand efforts to recognize the value of direct support workers and the people they support.

  • Provide a living wage for direct support workers commensurate with their competencies and job responsibilities.

Key Findings

Direct support workers were portrayed in five main categories.*

Workers were portrayed in the context of their profession, the workforce crisis, the pandemic, and in relation to families and the people they support. Descriptions of the direct support profession were the most common, followed by the pandemic, workforce crisis, people supported, and families.

The media often described the duties of the job and professionalization of the workforce. Articles about staff shortages and low wages highlighted the effects of the workforce crisis on workers. The media highlighted the added stress the pandemic put on direct support workers as they changed how they provided support and made sacrifices to keep the people they supported safe.

Direct support workers were portrayed in five main categories across a sample of 132 articles. This information is displayed in a table divided into five sections. The first category, profession, includes the profession, found in 97 articles; and impact on personal life, found in 46 articles. The second category, people supported, included access, found in 39 articles; relationship, found in 17 articles; and mistreatment, found in 7 articles. The third category, families, included family caregivers, found in 24 articles; DSWs supporting families, found in 6 articles; and transitions in support, found in 7 articles. The fourth category, workforce crisis, included staff shortage, found in 31 articles; and wages and benefits, found in 40 articles. The fifth category, pandemic, included COVID-19, found in 46 articles; intensified the crisis, found in 22 articles; effects on staffing, found in 29 articles; and overcoming challenges, found in 7 articles.

Many titles were used for direct support workers.

Fourteen different terms were used to describe the role of the direct support worker. “Direct support professional,” a title preferred in identifying workers who support individuals with IDD, was the most prevalent.

Many titles were used for direct support workers. Information is displayed in a bar graph with a title and the percentage of how frequently it appeared, based on how many articles it appeared in from the 132 in the sample. Direct support professional, 32 percent. Caregiver, 21 percent. Home health worker, 15 percent. Variations of this term included home care worker, home health aide, and home health care worker. Personal care assistant, 12 percent. Other, 10 percent. This included the titles manager, job coach, and group home worker. Direct care worker, or simply care worker, 6 percent. Certified nursing assistant 4 percent.

Policy Forum

Information on the Policy Forum for this issue of Policy Research Brief is coming soon.

The Policy Forum is a bi-monthly web-based presentation and facilitated discussion exploring research published in the most recent Policy Research Brief. Please visit the website for details and to view previous forums.

Published September 2023

Authors: Sarah Hall, Jerry Smith, and Quinn Oteman

Managing editor: Julie Bershadsky

Graphic design: Connie Burkhart

Suggested citation:

Hall, S., Smith, J., Oteman, Q., & Donaghy, T. (forthcoming). Representation of direct support workers in popular media. Policy Research Brief, 30(5). University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.

Development of this PRB was supported by Cooperative Agreement #90DNPA0001-01 and Grant #90RT5019 from the Administration on Community Living to the University of Minnesota. Points of view do not necessarily represent official ACL policy.

Policy Research Brief: z.umn.edu/rtcprb

The University of Minnesota is an equal-opportunity educator and employer. This document is available in alternative formats upon request.

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