DSPs: Everyday Heroes Who Need Your Voice

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017 | John Pingo, Ph.D. BCBA-D
John Pingo, Ph.D. BCBA-D

From Goldie B. Floberg President/CEO: John Pingo, Ph.D. BCBA-D

Everyone knows what a nurse or a teacher does. Yet when I say “Direct Support Professional,” I’m often faced with quizzical looks. Few people outside the human services field know what a DSP is or what they do. I started my career at the Goldie B. Floberg Center over 20 years ago as a Direct Support Professional (DSP). It was one of the most rewarding and also one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done in my life. A DSP wears many hats on any given day. They help people with developmental disabilities with daily care needs, such as cleaning a person after they use the bathroom, helping them dress, shower, eat, cook, clean their bodies, brush their hair, clean their homes, and any other activity a person needs to do to take care of themselves. They drive the people we serve to appointments and support them at doctor’s visits, often being their voice and front-line advocate. They help the people we serve take their medication, needing to know the purpose and side-effects of a plethora of medicines. They may get hit, yelled at, or face other situations that most of us never face as part of our daily work responsibilities as they help the people we serve overcome behavioral challenges. They are a shoulder to cry on during life’s darkest moments and the voice of encouragement when a person doubts their own abilities.

DSPs serve our most vulnerable citizens in a job that can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. They work overnights, evenings, weekends, holidays, and early mornings as the people we serve need 24-hour support. Given this wide range of responsibilities and challenging working conditions, how much do you think they make an hour? Would you be surprised to hear that most DSPs make as much or less as fast food or big box retail workers? In what sort of world is making a cheeseburger financially equivalent to helping a person with developmental disabilities make a life? Look around. We’re living in that world. Years of state government refusing to increase rates or give DSPs a raise, increasingly lower local unemployment, increased competition from the for-profit sector for employees, and an inherently difficult job have all combined to form a perfect storm, DSP-staffing crisis. Currently, 21% of our DSP positions sit vacant. I’ve never seen it this bad in my two decades at the Floberg Center. Our existing DSPs and management staff are working overtime hours to try to compensate, but this only leads to more burnout and more staff turnover.

We can’t raise our prices to give DSPs a raise. The state sets the rate for our services. We’ve cut our budget wherever we can to squeeze out what we can for DSPs without sacrificing the safety of the people we serve. It isn’t enough. We’re facing the need to make significant cuts in our budget this year because we are forced to serve fewer people, even as our waiting lists grow. We simply don’t have enough staff to meet our current needs, much less help even more people who need our services.

The only solution is for Illinois to stop the political gamesmanship and to create a budget that recognizes and addresses the DSP staffing crisis. You can help. Please contact your local legislators and tell them that DSPs deserve a living wage. We don’t have big-time lobbyist to help our DSPs. We can’t get a politician’s attention by making big donations. We only have our voice and the voices of people who care about people with developmental disabilities and those who serve them, the DSPs. Chances are, you, yourself, a friend, or the loved one of a friend needs the compassionate care of a DSP. Show how many of us need fair pay for DSPs. Call or email your legislator today and tell them DSPs deserve a living wage.

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