Direct support professionals are not invisible — they are essential

Throughout the global COVID-19 crisis, we’ve celebrated our front-line workers — doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery store and food service workers, and mail carriers — lauded as heroes who are keeping Americans safe, and ensuring our survival. And we should!

But there’s a group that has been ignored in these gestures for essential employees that also deserves to be recognized for the work its members do every day: helping people with disabilities navigate truly unprecedented challenges. Instead of hospitals, their front lines are in group homes in communities across America.

They are direct support professionals.

There are 4.5 million DSP workers employed nationally — almost 100,000 of them working in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware alone. They are a crucial piece of the country’s human services industry, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made their work more important than ever. And, yet, to the majority of Americans, they remain almost invisible.

Throughout this crisis, they’ve been a lifeline — “health care heroes” of the highest order for people who need their companionship, compassion and support now more than ever. In good times and in bad, human services providers like Bancroft couldn’t do what we do without the work of our DSPs; but, today, as we face some of the greatest challenges our world has seen, people would not be able to live life without them.

DSPs provide critical support to people with profound challenges: helping them to build daily life skills, access work or education, administer medications. Some support individuals with complex medical needs, as well.

Like all essential workers, DSPs show up every day and put their own personal health and well-being on the line because they have a critical job to do. They show up because they know how integral they are to keeping those we support safe, healthy, engaged and connected to their loved ones.

DSPs have been the ones ensuring proper hand hygiene, facilitating distance-learning in homes with school-age children, coordinating FaceTime calls with families, maintaining proper social-distancing among housemates — and being diligent to socially distance themselves in their off time to minimize the risk to the people they support.

As great as the impact of coronavirus has been on our lives, the loss of daily routines and strict social-distancing rules have had a significant impact on the people we serve: men, women and children living with profound disabilities, who require support in almost every aspect of their lives.

Through it all, DSPs have been there, providing a sense of calm and stability in the midst of so much uncertainty.

We need to honor and recognize how essential they are: to service providers, to the people in their care … to society as a whole.

Our DSP workforce at Bancroft is 1,900 strong — and, along with the nurses, managers and other vital staff, they’ve stepped up to do amazing work. I’m in awe of their dedication and resolve every single day.

It’s time to highlight, celebrate and elevate the contributions of America’s DSPs: in our words, in our actions and in the policies enacted to support America’s essential workers.

Their work can be extraordinarily challenging — that’s true every day, not just in times of crisis — and it takes a special kind of person to work in direct support.

It takes a hero.

Toni Pergolin is CEO and president of Bancroft, a leading regional nonprofit provider of specialized services for individuals with autism, intellectual or developmental disabilities and brain injuries. Established in 1883, Bancroft serves 2,200 people annually in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. 

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