Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Direct Support Workforce Development

One Strong, Caring Voice: DSPs Band Together


Gail Abbott is Secretary for the DSPAT State Advisory Board.

We are Direct Support Professionals (DSPs). Our job is to support, not accomplish. How well we do our job is reflected in the lives of the individuals we support. The thanks we receive is in the shining face of someone who has just gotten their first apartment, or in the profound joy of a person who has applied for many jobs and after months of searching has just been gainfully employed. Our joy is in the realization of another’s life-long dream. Our jobs and our goals are to treat everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve, while supporting them to accomplish their goals in the workplaces and communities and encouraging them to express themselves through leisure activities of their own choosing. This is who we are.

Although professional caregivers have always shouldered a multitude of responsibilities directly related to individuals’ health and immediate safety, the hourly pay has always been low. Along with insufficient training, limited educational and career opportunities, and low social status for caregivers this has been an immediate threat to our DSP workforce as well as to the people with disabilities we support. In Tennessee and across the country we are organizing to address these threats and ensure that our DSP workforce can meet the needs of those we support today and in the future.

At the national level, DSPs and their allies formed the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) in 1996 to address issues relating to professional caregivers. NADSP is a coalition of organizations and individuals committed to strengthening the quality of human service support by strengthening the direct support workforce. We are proud to report that the times indeed are changing. With the establishment of the NADSP, a chain reaction of sorts began. DSPs around the country began to band together. NADSP affiliate organizations formed in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

In Tennessee where I live, the Direct Support Professional Association of Tennessee (DSPAT) works in conjunction with the NADSP on a national level, and local chapters have also formed to assist with communication and unity. The DSPAT motto is: “Many Caring People, One Strong Voice.” We have a voice, and that voice is growing steadily louder. For example, in 2005 the Tennessee Department of Mental Retardation Services (DMRS) in conjunction with DSPAT began examining the DSP rate of pay, and realized that it was decidedly lacking. DMRS recognized the need for well-trained professional caregivers, and approved a pay increase for providers. This increase was meant solely for DSPs, and could not be used for any other purpose. In March 2006, providers began receiving increased payments to fund DSP bonuses. This gave our Tennessee DSPs a much-needed raise at the state level.

At the local level, the Anderson County DSPAT chapter is a wonderful example of how a NADSP affiliate has helped bring the concept of pride and strength in numbers to individual DSPs. Anderson County has added to the DSPAT motto the line “Every Voice Counts.” The strength this motto represents demonstrates the camaraderie and pride that now exists between these organizations and the importance we as a whole place on listening to our members. This chapter holds monthly potluck dinners to promote membership growth, and bake sales to raise money to support the chapter. It can now afford to publish its own newsletters and mail them to its members in East Tennessee. Monthly award winners receive DSPAT award certificates and cash prizes at chapter meetings to promote peer recognition, and pictures are taken for a chapter scrapbook, to post on the DSPAT Web site, and to send to local papers. The members take care of each other by starting a fund for and donating money to DSPs who need a helping hand with groceries, shelter, or clothing.

These efforts in Tennessee have produced wonderful results. For example, Meredith Zirkel joined the DSP workforce at Emory Valley Center in Oak Ridge three years ago. She has a degree in criminal justice. Her son has Autism, and when faced with the choice of how to provide him with the best opportunities, she felt that she needed to see what his life would be like as a consumer with a provider agency. She now continues as a DSP because she wants to be part of the movement toward better education and training for professional caregivers. She has a large stake in the DSP workforce and its potential.

Teresa Luke is another wonderful DSP. She has a Bachelor’s degree in human services and works as a job coach at Emory Valley Center. When asked why she chose this profession she says she feels that a Higher Power called her to this field. She could have chosen many fields with her degree, but chooses to stay where she feels she is truly needed. The dedication she feels to the people she supports is commendable, and this attitude is one of the many reasons that we cannot, and will not, fail in our efforts.

The dedication of Meredith and Teresa and other DSPs with the same spirit will ultimately promote our success on all levels. The NADSP, DSPAT, and other local chapters must work collectively to provide the support that DSPs such as Meredith and Teresa need to do their jobs. DSPs need support from the national, state, and local levels to be the professionals they need to be for the people they support. In the words of DSPAT’s Executive Director, Earl Foxx Jr., “The greatest benefit and honor of being a NADSP affiliate is the idea of being a part of the nationwide movement to equip our workforce with the resources needed to instill character and ethics that are required to responsibly perform their job duties. I foresee the future of the NADSP as a growing organization, with establishment of affiliates that will eventually encompass our nation.”

Direct Support Professionals have begun to educate others that ours is a true career choice, and not “just a job.” Martin Luther King Jr. said: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” We are proud of who we are and what we do. The happiness and the very lives of the people we support depend on our excellence. We are Direct Support Professionals.