Direct Support Professionals offer support to those with unique needs and preferences
“Realizing we all face challenges and struggles puts all of us on an even playing field, which allows us to grow and learn together.”

Anne Margaret McElroy (former GMSS DSP)

Gina Brown recently celebrated her 2oth year as a DSP with GMSS.
WHO ARE DIRECT SUPPORT PROFESSIONALS? Direct support professionals (DSPs) assist people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in realizing their full potential and becoming valued and participating members of their communities. Their work is complex and goes well beyond caregiving, requiring skills including independent problem solving, decision making, behavioral assessment and prevention, medication administration, health and allied health treatment, teaching new skills, crisis prevention and intervention and more.

The job duties of a DSP may resemble those of teachers, nurses, social workers, counselors, physical or occupational therapists, dieticians, chauffeurs, personal trainers, and others. Their work requires strong communication skills and the ability to build relationships with the people they support and their families.

DSPs may work in family or individual homes, intermediate care facilities, residential group homes, community job sites, vocational and day programs, and other locations. Their work is determined by the unique needs and preferences of the individuals they support, and they are held to high ethical and professional standards. 

DSPs work to break up the isolation and loneliness many people are experiencing even before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

GMSS DSPs enjoy an afternoon picnic this past summer to celebrate all of the hard work they do through the year.
“My favorite thing about being a DSP was knowing that each day I went work that if I listen and pay attention to the little things, I will learn something new every time I look or listen a little closer. This job is a gift we just need to know how to look at the present!”

— Lindsay Barup (GMSS former DSP, current Service Coordinator)
According to the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP), finding qualified DSPs has long been a challenge. The statistics for recruitment and retention are extremely troubling with annual turnover rates averaging around 45% both nationally and in Vermont. Hourly starting wages in Vermont had started as low as $14/hour but faced with vacancy rates rising to unprecedented levels during the pandemic designated and specialized agencies with intellectual/developmental disability programs have raised their wages, some as high as $18 per hour.

Marie Lallier, Director of Developmental Disability Services for Vermont Care Partners said, “We’re hearing from DSPs that it boils down to pay. The intrinsic reward of their work just isn’t enough given the cost of student loans, rent, car maintenance (a job requirement) and other basic needs. While they love their jobs, they aren’t paid enough to survive in Vermont.” Unfortunately, many are leaving the State because they are priced out of the communities they serve and love. 

What is behind these numbers?

Where can we get more information about causes?

How can we identify solutions?

While there can be answers to these questions based on assumptions or limited insight, we lack the ability for complex data analysis of these issues. It causes Direct Support Professionals to become anonymous. To confront this, the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) is leading a nationwide effort to establish a Direct Support Professional Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) within the US Department of Labor.

A SOC is designated by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics. With the insight gathered through a SOC, governmental agencies, individual organizations, and everyday citizens can uncover otherwise unavailable information about that occupation. The Standard Occupational Classification for other “caregiving” occupations are clear: a Certified Nursing Assistant is 31-1014, Home Health Aide is 31-1121 and Personal Care Aide is 31-1122. Direct Support Professionals do not have one.

A group of DSPs work on a team building exercise at an area lake in warmer weather.
Currently, Direct Support Professionals are inaccurately classified in labor reports under these other positions, which do not adequately represent the skill requirements of a Direct Support Professional. Without a dedicated SOC for Direct Support Professionals, there are a number of critical ramifications:

Negative Implications for Service Reimbursement Rates When states do not have a SOC for classifying the roles of Direct Support Professionals, they struggle to appropriately set reimbursement rates for services which compensate Direct Support Professionals.
Lack of Data for Identifying Workforce Shortages
Without a SOC, there is no real measure for identifying staffing needs, gaps in services, and risks for cessation of services. Data provided through a SOC will lead to better understanding workforce shortages and developing long-lasting approaches to fixing them.
Devaluation of the Workforce
Despite the fact that a Direct Support Professionals work requires complex skills, thoughtful compassion, diverse care, and deep medical knowledge, there is a failure to identify this position on the scale it deserves. A SOC would create a concrete understanding of both the contributions and the struggles of the workforce.
The National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP) is building a coalition to issue a petition to the US Office of Management and Budget, demanding that the office Establish a Direct Support Professional Standard Occupational Classification. Direct Support Professionals should not have to work anonymously anymore.

One thing that is for sure is the role DSPs play in achieving overall happiness for both the person they serve and themselves. DSPs go above and beyond to assist those they work with to advocate for themselves to the highest potential.

“I enjoy being a DSP. Watching the social interaction my guy has with the public. The satisfaction he gets after a day of work. Every day he is happy. Ask him why and his reply is, ‘it is a beautiful day.’ He brings a smile to my face every day.”

Raymond Greene (GMSS DSP)

And to all of the amazing DSPs: we appreciate you. We appreciate your dedication, your compassion, and your support.

At GMSS, We Ensure that Our Neighbors with Disabilities are at Home in the Community.

This article is part of a collaboration produced by members of Vermont Cre Partners. Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of sixteen non-profit, community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability support.