Frontline Initiative International

DSPs in Brazil Have Few Resources, Face Low Wages


Rosana Salvador Rossit, M.Sc. is an occupational therapist in Sao Carlos, S.P. Brazil.

Brazil is a country of immense size. Although much of the land is rural, most of the Brazilian population is located in large cities. These large cities are like hubs in a wheel where most goods and professional services are provided. It is often difficult for people who live in the country to access goods and services, because only narrow two-lane highways link large cities to smaller towns, and unpaved roads join towns to rural areas. Public transportation to the cities is also lacking. Though Brazil is a land rich in natural resources such as gold, semi-precious stones, and timber, the country has a history of economic instability. Presently, the economy is fairly stable, but most Brazilians worry constantly about earning enough money to meet their daily expenses. This instability and concern has greatly limited the existence of supports for people with disabilities, and of the resources available to those who provide these services.

School-age children with developmental disabilities often have much difficulty obtaining necessary supports. Children with even mild retardation typically are excluded from public education and those with severe physical, mental, or behavioral impairments usually do not attend school at all. Children who do attend school go to the APAE (Associão de Pais e Amigos dos Excepcionais [The Association of Parents and Friends of the Mentally Retarded]), which is maintained through community funds and complemented by a small amount of federal funds. The APAE and other privately funded schools are called “institutions” rather than “schools.” Children attend a daily four-hour session at these institutions, and receive instruction that primarily focuses on “alphabetizing,” (the copying of words and numbers in an attempt to teach reading and number skills). No emphasis is put on teaching daily living, social, or vocational skills.

The APAE and all public schools operate under limited financial resources, which do not make it feasible to buy materials, hire and train full-time staff, or give staff a fair wage. The federal government sometimes supplies notebooks and pencils, although some public schools and institutions have only a blackboard and chalk. An institution typically employs a social worker, psychologist, physical therapist, and speech therapist to work twenty hours per week and are paid $400- 500 per month, which is not a high wage in Brazil (comparable to making the same amount in the United States). The average Brazilian housemaid earns a similar wage.

The lack of financial resources greatly affects Direct Support Professionals (DSPs). Most direct service jobs supporting children with special needs involve teaching, and most of these full-time positions pay $250-300 per month. Little or no training in special education either prior to starting work or as a part of in-service training is offered, and those who work in special education and other direct service positions often are beginning their first job or are older persons who cannot find other work. The turnover rate is very high because DSPs either try to find work in regular education or in other jobs that pay more. Direct support staff who do stay have almost no opportunity for advancement. Furthermore, many in direct support often look for other work to supplement their income. When they work at several jobs, however, increased demands of their time and skills often produces physical and emotional exhaustion that reduces their motivation, interest, and dedication to providing supports.

Brazilian special educators recognize these problems and suggest changes, but implementation of effective programs is almost impossible without financial resources. Research is being conducted currently at universities and in community programs to test new interventions for persons with special needs. The greatest challenge at the moment is to propose alternative solutions, that after proving effective, will be adopted by the schools and institutions. But only through these changes will the qualities of services improve, and consequently, the quality of lives for individuals with disabilities also improve. 

Celso Socorro Oliveira , who translated her manuscript,is a doctoral student in the Special Education Department at the Federal University of San Carlos. 

Muriel Saunders of Parsons Research Center, Parsons, edited it.