Arc of Ohio CEO Gary Tonks Says DD Support Staff Deserve Better Pay

It has been almost 50 years since I first entered an establishment created to house people with intellectual disabilities.

I say “home” because it could never have been described as intimate. Children and adults with various types of disabilities wandered, often naked, through crowded halls.

The smell is something that will never leave my nostrils. On restless nights, I can still hear the cries and moans of the people locked up, who had done nothing to deserve this confinement other than being born with a disability.

I thank God and the many advocates who fought for change that those days are over. But I’m afraid we’ve forgotten or perhaps don’t care about the dedicated staff who continue to support our loved ones every day.

We call them Direct Support Professionals or DSPs.

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The word “professional” implies a salary commensurate with qualifications, training and responsibilities. They certainly have many responsibilities.

DSPs care for, assist, support, and teach Ohio’s most vulnerable citizens, whether they have a birth disability or an accident. And somehow adding the word professional to a job title is enough to provide the recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction that every field needs to survive? It’s not.

Our direct support staff not only provide help, care, and training, but are there to hold your hand, hug you, and comfort you through the life experiences we all go through.

These precious members of our community are so often told that they will have a place in heaven when their life on earth is over, but these words ring hollow while they are still on earth. Verbal praise and adding words to a job description mean nothing when it comes to paying a mortgage, feeding a family, and paying a utility bill.

My personal mandate to provide direct support came to an end after an exhausting day of supporting others, when I returned to a dark house. I hadn’t been able to pay our electricity bill and while I was providing for others, my own family sat in the dark.

While fast food franchises advertise positions paying $15 an hour and up with access to benefits, direct support staff in the disability community often struggle to survive on $12 an hour or less without benefits.

Years of advocacy resulted in a 4% increase in direct support staff on January 1, with some reports indicating inflation for 2021 was 7%. Does one have to wonder why turnover exceeds 50% among direct support staff for Ohioans with disabilities?

We must do better. Commendations and accolades alone will not be enough to provide adequate compensation and retention for the thousands of direct support staff needed by Ohioans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Gary Tonks is the President and CEO of The Arc of Ohio in Columbus, the oldest and largest grassroots organization in the state representing people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families.

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