DIRECT SUPPORT PROFESSIONALS
Sixteen years ago I applied for a job as a direct support professional, and to be honest I did not know what type of a job I’d be walking into. I knew it was working with people with disabilities but I didn’t know what type of disabilities. So at the group interview at a residence, I met 10 individuals, I met 4 staff, and right away it felt like family. Working with the people in that house brought so much happiness to my life. Hopefully I was able to make a difference in their lives as well.
One young woman I have worked with has complicated medical issues. She gets around in a wheelchair. She relies on a feeding tube 24 hours a day; she can’t take anything by mouth any more, not even water. She can’t bathe or dress or feed herself, Left alone she would perish. But she understands everything we tell her. She also understands Spanish very well. She can’t speak but communicates by waving her hand and smiling. She likes to have a very social life and enjoys everything that’s going on around her. She loves going to concerts, especially Usher.
One man in the residence has a neurological condition that over the years caused his motor skills, including his capacity to speak, to decline. We have to decipher what he is communicating. His gait is off, too, and now he needs a walker to go outside. He can no longer eat regular food, only pureed foods and thickened liquids. He’s very smart, and it’s frustrating for him that he can no longer do the things he used to. So we’re teaching him to ask for help. That way he’s controlling the situation himself.
Direct support is difficult work. Direct support staff are mandated to get lots of very intensive training, and we have to be retrained and recertified every year. We get training on human rights, on choking, on fire safety and health safety, on everything to do with life. We learn how to give medications, which takes 5 full days of training, and we learn how to work with people with behavioral challenges.
We also have to follow a lot of federal, state, and agency rules and regulations, and we have to do a lot of documentation to ensure that money that is spent through Medicaid is spent appropriately and accurately.
We have a high staff turnover in residential services because of the low pay. Compared to the private sector, private sector employees get more for easier jobs. The low pay is not because of the agencies; it’s because of the rate that’s paid to the agencies by the state. The agencies don’t have the funds to pay us more.
I know lots of staff who work a second job. They have to. They have no other way to support their family. I manage only because I moved back with family members, after 27 years of living on my own.
I stay in this field because I like the work. I’m here because there’s a reason: to help people to have a happy, meaningful life. I work with them, I befriend them, I have an attachment to them. To go out of my way for people who don’t have the capacity to do things for themselves, that’s the least I could do.
I’d like our legislators to look at the level of professionalism in this field. A lawyer is considered a professional. A doctor is considered a professional. A teacher is considered a professional A direct support staff person should also be considered a professional. We have mandated trainings, we are obligated to follow rules and regulations and show clear documentation that we’re doing the right thing. We’re dealing with people who are very vulnerable and are easily manipulated or abused. We ensure that they don’t ever get abused or mistreated. We have a high standard of professionalism. We are a professional group of people, so why is our salary not equal to the profession? New York State should increase the salaries of direct support staff to match the duties and responsibilities of our work.