Frontline Initiative: Making Direct Support a Career

NADSP Update
DSPs and COVID-19

Author(s)

Joseph M. Macbeth is the NADSP chief executive officer and president. He can be reached at jmacbeth@nadsp.org

Joe Macbeth

I don’t have to tell you that these are very serious times. It’s impossible to give an NADSP update without talking about how the pandemic has affected direct support professionals (DSPs).

According to a recent study on COVID-19 and the Direct Support Workforce by the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota and the NADSP, nearly 74% of DSP respondents indicated they were the primary wage earners in their household. The survey also showed that they are earning an average of only $13.63 per hour. Only 24% of them indicated they were paid higher wages during the crisis.

Even before the pandemic, additional resources were desperately needed to attract competent, qualified staff to fill vacancies and retain veteran staff. Over one quarter of these DSPs indicated they were now even more short-staffed due to COVID-19. Many of them were working a high number of overtime hours. Listen carefully. DSPs are often called “heroes.” They are called the “backbone” of this system. They are “essential workers” on whose shoulders the system stands during pandemics and natural disasters. They often sacrifice their own health and the health of their families. I’ve never once heard a DSP describe him- or herself as a hero. In fact, I am beginning to think they are starting to resent it.

The 1.3 million DSPs who support people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities have bravely reported to work throughout this pandemic. They closely monitor the physical and emotional health and wellness of many who have complex medical conditions. They re-created their community-based job using their resourcefulness and creativity. They teach proper social distancing skills and keep families engaged through technology. Working in tandem with the people they support, they’ve developed new daily schedules for people. Quite simply, they show up every day because they are committed and dedicated to this noble work. But you can only stretch a rubber band so far before it snaps. I worry that we are reaching that point. In our recorded interviews with dozens of DSPs since April, and by monitoring our social media threads, we know that DSPs are tired, frustrated, and traumatized. Now, more than ever before they need attention, support ,and relief. They do not need any more lip service.

If anything, COVID-19 has lifted the veil on a decades-long systemic failure to support the most important resource in the disability services sector—the direct support workforce—that has been neglected for far too long. 

Prior to the pandemic, the NADSP staff traveled across the country engaging with tens of thousands of DSPs each year. We promised to make sure their voices are heard. Sadly, the vast majority of you do not earn fair compensation or have access to career ladders that all professions rightfully deserve. This lack of awareness devalues the DSP. It also reflects greatly on how people with disabilities are devalued by society. People with disabilities and their families expect nothing less than competent, highly skilled, ethical professionals to support them with their physical and emotional needs. Especially in a once-in-a-century public health crisis.

The NADSP is the only national organization whose sole mission is to promote lifelong learning opportunities for DSPs, providing them with access to career pathways and continuously seeking ways to improve the way we support people with disabilities at the point of interaction. 

I ask that you make a commitment to DSPs’ ongoing learning and professional development. Recognize them through career ladder opportunities and credentialing. This is a social justice issue that has plagued the disability service system for too long. It will take all of us, together, to create a new reality for DSPs and the people they support.

If there is a long-term silver lining in this pandemic, it may be that our direct support workforce will finally be given the credit and opportunity that is long overdue. In order to do that, we need your help. Please join the NADSP membership today.

Thank you,

Joe MacBeth

Frontline Initiative • Volume 16, number 2 • 2020

Editors: Julie Kramme and Chet Tschetter

Graphic design: Connie Burkhart

Web developers Shawn Lawler, Jonathon Walz, Kristin Dean

Editorial board

Tony Anderson, Rachel Jacob, Robin Kusiak, Mary Lawson, Colleen McLaughlin, Diane Potts, Robert Schier, and Eryn Starck

NADSP staff

  • Joseph Macbeth, President and CEO
  • Desiree Loucks Baer, Chief Operating Officer
  • John Raffaele, Director of Educational Services
  • Dan Hermreck, Director of Certification and Accreditation
  • Nicole Dama, Office and Communications Manager

NADSP board of directors

  • Caitlin Bailey PhD (ABD), Chair
  • Jeanne Farr, MA, Vice Chair
  • Josh Smith, Treasurer
  • Janet Wilson, DSP-C-I, Secretary
  • Cheryl Dougan, Director-At-Large
  • Katherine Dunbar, Director-At-Large
  • Chester Finn, Director-At-Large
  • Kelly Friedlander, MSW, MPA, Director-At-Large
  • John McHugh, MBA, MS, Director-At-Large
  • Laurie "Chet" Tschetter, Director-At-Large
  • Gabrielle Sedor, Director-At-Large
  • Becky Watson, Director-At-Large

Web nadsp.org

If you are interested in contributing to Frontline Initiative or reprinting an article, please contact —

Julie Kramme or Chet Tschetter, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, E-mail: frontline-dsp@umn.edu

View past issues of Frontline Initiative here: z.umn.edu/frontlineinitiative

Frontline Initiative is supported through a cooperative agreement between the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education (#H133B080005) and the Research and Training Center on Community Living (RTC) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the RTC, Institute, University of Minnesota, or their funding sources.

Frontline Initiative is available in alternate formats upon request.

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