Frontline Initiative: The Diverse Voices of Direct Support Professionals

DSPs Must Play a Critical Role in Creating a More Inclusive and Equitable Future for All


Stanfort J. Perry is CEO

Nicole Zerillo , J.D. is the Assistant Director of Community Resources, and

Hassan M. Abdulhaqq Ph.D., Director of Human Resources, AHRC Nassau in Glen Head, New York.

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The future is what we make of it. Social justice begins not just at rallies or in the voting booth, but every day— in how we treat others and advocate for ourselves. Yet, for direct support professionals (DSPs), this quickly becomes more complicated. While serving as essential workers with lives in the balance, DSPs are challenged to address the under-recognition and under-funding of their noble and crucial occupation.

It’s a frustrating, vicious cycle, deeply rooted in issues at the intersection of race and disability. It’s also what inspired the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Virtual Conference on May 18, 2022, co-presented by nonprofits, AHRC Nassau, and The Arc of the United States. Training modules will be available through May 2023 at . The conference explored the barriers to full inclusion and equity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) as well as the staff who work with them. Topics ranged from, “How to break the silence of systemic racism” to “The need for a Standard Occupational Classification” for DSPs.

Get clear on what issues matter most to you and formulate a vision of what a more equitable and inclusive future might look like.

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Author, Stanfort J. Perry

For DEI Virtual Conference Chair and AHRC Nassau CEO Stanfort Perry, the need to inform and empower DSPs has been a call to action throughout his career. Perry’s journey from DSP to CEO of one the largest IDD agencies in New York State is a direct result of his work as a DSP. He embraced the role, developing strong and lasting bonds with the people he supported and their families. That was the start of moving up the career ladder. Tapping on this experience, Perry has advice for DSPs who advocate for change:

  • Get clear on what issues matter most to you and formulate a vision of what a more equitable and inclusive future might look like.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak truth to injustice, racism, and bigotry whenever it appears. Silence may be wrongly interpreted!
  • Be persistent. Continually advocate for pay equity and working conditions that enhance your quality of life. If you are a working parent, advocate for schedule flexibility and child-care assistance as necessary.
  • No one can speak up for you better than you. Join committees at work, offer ideas that improve quality, and make sure you have the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of your local, state, and federal lawmakers in your phone—ready to advocate.
  • Take advantage of tuition assistance programs and specialized trainings to advance your career as well as create greater access to career opportunities and advancement for DSPs of all abilities and experiences.

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Authors Nicole Zerillo and Hassan M. Abdulhaqq

While these strategies are excellent starting points for individual DSPs, Perry recommends building on the collective energy of a full DSP team through retention campaigns. Building trust and strong relationships is a sure way to create a high-performing culture. It also ensures you are working beside co-workers who share the same mission and values – people ready to address issues of inclusion and equity with authenticity. In partnership with leadership, DSPs may also consider developing larger change through short-, mid-, and long-term measures that bring out the best in yourself and others. They can range from a small token of appreciation, such as a handwritten note on work anniversaries, to a Staff Appreciation Day. A new AHRC Nassau retention strategy focuses on “internal mobility” that empowers staff to shift roles, projects, and assignments. This approach reflected staff feedback and was grounded in mentorship and engagement.One DSP can make a difference. Creativity and positivity start with individual DSPs and then are amplified by a team, ready to meet the challenges ahead together.