Direct Support Professionals: Heroes With a Tough Job

This important information comes my way from Wendy Barrett, BSW, Service Coordinator at Denali Family Services. But first, “what is Denali Family Services?” you might ask. Here is the elegant way in which they describe themselves:

At Denali Family Services, we believe and operate under the simple premise that children and families belong together. We believe that children belong in their own communities. We are advocates. Our goal is to creatively provide health services for children who experience significant emotional challenges and their families or caregivers. Every day we work with parents, children, health care providers, and anyone relevant in each child’s life to assist in reaching his/her life goals. Our goal may seem lofty to some, but to us as Denali Family Services, it is our life’s work and joy.

Here is the core of the important notice that was forwarded to me by the nice folks at Denali Family Services…

Earlier this year, Representatives Lee Terry (R-NE) and Lois Capps D-CA) introduced the Direct Support Professionals Fairness and Security Act of 2005 (H.R. 1264). Reps. Terry and Capps recognize the inadequate wages paid to hundreds of thousands of direct support professionals who struggle daily to enhance the lives of people with disabilities while at the same time struggling to provide income security for their own families. H.R. 1264 represents a first step in bringing an unfair situation to the attention of Congress and the nation.

For millions of people with disabilities of all ages, direct support professionals are the key to living successfully in their home communities. Direct support professionals are often personal care assistants or home care aides who assist people with severe disabilities with medications, preparing and eating meals, dressing, mobility, personal hygiene and handling daily affairs.

Direct support professionals face many difficult challenges throughout their careers. Unfortunately, these difficulties have led to high turnover and ongoing vacancies, which can place people with severe disabilities at risk. Annual turnover rates for direct support professionals range to more than 75 percent.

The lack of adequate and well-trained direct support staff for people with disabilities continues to threaten the quality of services provided for people with disabilities; undermines their choice to live and work in the community; and chips away their ability to control their own lives.

The Arc, United Cerebral Palsy, the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) and the Lutheran Services of America are participating in a national campaign to highlight this important issue and gain support for H.R. 1264.

It just so happens that the June issue of Alaska Economic Trends (27 page PDF file), my favorite Alaska socio-economic data publication, is a special edition on Alaskan jobs and wages. Let’s see how direct support professionals fare in Alaska. Page 14 has a table on the “Demographic Profile of Alaska’s Top Occupations, 2003,” the latest year for which complete data is available. “Personal and Home Care Aides” is ranked as Alaska’s 41st occupation in terms of the total number of workers, over 2,000.

The average age of direct support professionals in Alaska is 38 years of age, with 23% of these workers over age 50! This is tough, physical labor for an older worker. How many of them have adequate health insurance, or any at all? Not really sure—Alaska Economic Trends doesn’t report that information—but I’ll bet not many do. Note also that well over four-fifths of all direct support professionals in Alaska are women. Women in “other services” in Alaska, the closest occupational category to “direct support professionals,” average annual earnings of $18,346. This is $7,000 less than men in similar occupations, $5,000 less the average wage of all females in Alaska, and $15,000 less than the average annual earnings of all males Alaskan.

Put these facts about direct support professionals in the context of the recent destruction of pension plans for Alaskan public workers, the ongoing attacks on Medicaid, the collapse of private pension systems in the United States, the disappearance of health insurance for low and middle income workers in the United States, and the threatened privatization (and destruction) of Social Security. No, it doesn’t look good. Bad public policy threatens the well-being of families in Alaska and across the nation.

Lawrence D. Weiss Ph.D., M.S.
President of the Board

Posted on August 3, 2005, in Public Health Policy. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. As the debate in Washington and state houses across America is focused elsewhere, the health and quality of life for millions of Americans is endangered by an alarming shortage of professional caregivers. Even more troubling, demand for services among people with disabilities and aging Americans is rising dramatically. Two leading national disability organizations have launched to raise public awareness about this largely ignored crisis. is an Internet-driven campaign created through a partnership between the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) and United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), two of the nation’s largest non-profit health organizations whose respective members and affiliates provide services to hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities.

    “American families already know the impact of the direct support professional shortage, and those who don’t soon will. Thousands of families are waiting for help, and millions make do with little more because there are simply not enough direct support professionals,” said Renee L. Pietrangelo, CEO of ANCOR. “ is about getting this issue on the radar before it’s too late.”

    A 2003 national report found that direct support professionals earn an average of only $8.68 per hour, a wage clearly unequal to their responsibilities. Support professional wages, which are almost entirely publicly financed through Medicaid, are increasing well below comparable jobs and even the minimum wage. According to the Department of Labor, the wages of personal and home care aides increased only $0.82 from 1992-2000 versus $4.11 for fast food workers.

    “ recognizes that direct support professionals make a difference, and that it’s time they make a living too,” said Stephen Bennett, President and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy. “We entrust direct support professionals with tremendous responsibility yet we expect them to work in jobs that don’t even meet welfare-to-work wage minimums.

    In its first phase, calls on supporters to urge their Members of Congress to cosponsor the bipartisan Direct Support Professional Fairness and Security Act H.R. 1264 to protect millions of Americans who depend on direct support professionals for daily assistance and support.

    Introduced by Representatives Lee Terry (R-NE) and Lois Capps (D-CA), the legislation promotes fair support professional wages in an effort to stabilize the high turnover and vacancy rates. Increased wages and lower turnover rates will improve support for people with disabilities to live in the community and provide families with assurances that their loved one’s health and independence is ensured.

    Visitors to can also learn more about the issue, read stories about direct support professionals and sign a petition calling on state lawmakers to take action on this important issue.

    For more information visit

  2. I am in college to get a degree in Community Supports for People With disabilities. It is a fact that individuals getting hired off the streets is putting a threat on those getting the services. DSP’S are trained and understand the individuals needs and programs they have. Working with people with disabilities is a great job, I support the individuals and let them be independant and be a self-advocate. I beleive everythig that is said in this article is true and it is a tough job but I have the strength to do this job and give the people I support the strength to live a life full of options and have them make choices from those options provided.
    Thank you for your time.
    Amanda Stedman

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