Veronica Young: The people who take care of people who need help, need help

May 23, 2023 – Special in the Post-Gazette

Lauren Zak, a Direct Support Professional for Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, helps Emmaus resident Diane change her sheets. (Photo Credit: Kaycee Orwig, PublicSource)

I am a 62-year-old mother and grandmother who has dedicated 45 years of my life as a direct support professional, or DSP. That means I support people in the ID/A (intellectual disability/autism) community with their everyday needs so they can live in their own homes and communities.

Today, I find myself in a distressing situation. I am highly educated. I have a college degree. I attained that education so I could work in this field, make a difference in the lives of others, and make a living for my family. But I cannot survive economically on the inadequate wage funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

I am deeply passionate about my work. Despite my age, I continue to toil because I genuinely love being a DSP. However, it is disheartening to think that after 45 years, I still juggle three jobs just to make ends meet for my three children and me. This means I often work 80 hours per week in order to survive financially. This should not be the reality for skilled, dedicated professionals.

Those with no understanding of our profession dismiss us as glorified babysitters. But let me tell you, the responsibilities we bear are immense. It is critical that others understand and respect the dignity and seriousness of our work.

DSPs support people with any or all of the following: getting out of bed and dressing for the day, managing sometimes severe behavior and other challenges in the process; maintaining personal hygiene; administering daily and often multiple medications; supervising or actually doing daily tasks like cooking and cleaning; helping manage complicated behavioral issues, often from people who cannot communicate verbally so there has to be deep commitment to understanding and trusting each other.

We maintain a safe, secure environment within the confines of literally thousands of regulations placed on our profession. Personally, I have even supported individuals under my care as they took their last breath.

The people I support have rights and deserve dignity just like everyone reading this. DSPs like me often spend more time with them than anyone else. Many of them have no family in their lives. DSPs must cultivate a relationship with the people they support so there can be faith and safety in that relationship. They absolutely must trust and have great affection and respect for their DSPs, even as the DSP must trust, love, and respect them as the human beings they are.

As a DSP, I could never have survived without the love and support of my own family. Even though my time with them is affected greatly by my job, they are totally supportive because they know what I do is life-changing and that I love what I do.

I implore others to join me in asking our legislators to grasp the urgency of this situation. The future of the ID/A community hangs in the balance. Young workers are deterred from entering this field due to the meager wages. My education could help me get a different job, yet I choose to remain a DSP because of my unwavering belief in the potential of people with ID/A.

Today, I ask you to help me challenge our state legislators to consider the impact they can make on the lives of so many of our neighbors and family members. DSPs are the unsung heroes who bring light and hope to people to people with intellectual disability/autism and their families. We deserve better, and so do the people we support.

Veronica Young, who began her career as a direct support professional in 1979, works at Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh serving adults in community-based residential homes.

First Published May 25, 2023, 5:30am

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