December 2022

As more organizations move away from providing sub-minimum wage jobs in sheltered workshops, direct support professionals (DSPs) are grappling with new demands for supporting people with disabilities to find and succeed in competitive jobs in the community. The new issue of Frontline Initiative delves into the history, challenges, and opportunities in supported employment.

“DSPs play an important role in creating positive expectations and in consistently supporting people to find a job that really fits them,” Chet Tschetter, co-editor of FI, said in a video announcing the new issue.

As of 2020, more than 140,000 people are receiving integrated employment services, and most states have now adopted employment-first policies, notes author John Butterworth, a researcher at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

In another article, Christelle Auger, a DSP and job coach, talks about working with Ryan to identify his interest in the culinary field and then using an organizational networking relationship with Amos House in Providence, Rhode Island, to support him through an eight-week culinary and food-safety course there. The experience, Auger writes, gave Ryan the tools to make an informed choice about his career and it also deepened her own professional skills.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we wanted to hear what was going on for people,” said co-editor Julie Kramme. “Many people with disabilities experience barriers to getting the job that they want, and this can be so discouraging, but there are success stories,” Kramme said.

In a video interview with Tschetter for the issue, for example, Allan Cole and Estel Williams discuss Allan’s job as lead bagger at a grocery store, and how Estel’s support has lessened over time as Allan’s skills grew over the last several years.

There have been challenges, to be sure.

Some organizations that abruptly closed at the start of the pandemic began shifting entirely to competitive integrated employment support, requiring substantial new skills of DSPs, just at a time when they were reporting significant levels of anxiety and burnout, notes Joseph Macbeth, president of the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP).

“Things are clearly not OK,” he writes in the issue, discussing results of ICI’s 24-month direct support workforce survey. “My impression from the data is that direct support professionals are being stretched to the point where we have added another layer to this workforce crisis – a mental health crisis.”

There are, as well, examples of professionals who are thriving.

Nicole Opland shares her story of supporting Cameron Olson to find and succeed in property and environmental work in Duluth, Minnesota.

“Working with Cameron has reinforced for me that integrated employment is the preferred and most successful place for people to learn and thrive,” she writes. “Being in the community helped him advance his employment success more effectively and efficiently.”