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Jeff Ashcraft, president and CEO of Handicapped Development Center

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” – Christopher Reeve

Reeve is the late actor known for playing Superman on the big screen in the 1970s and 80s, and his words are inspirational, but also like Reeve, and others who face disabilities; it is simply a fact of life.

For those professionals who make their living by working directly with individuals with disabilities this is genuinely an inspiring truth. These people are also true superheroes, who find ways each and every day to help the most vulnerable to succeed, to achieve, to grow and to be happy. These people are direct support professionals.

The argument could easily be made that direct support professionals (known as DSPs) are some of the most needed, and unnoticed specialists in the health and human services field. Yet the demand for people who are willing to serve their fellow human beings at the most intimate levels has never been higher. At HDC, DSPs work with participants who have a variety of intellectual and physical disabilities across all of our programs. Many of our DSPs support participants in their employment efforts, or in daytime activities which keep them active and integrated into our communities. However, DSPs may be more widely known for providing residential support by helping assist persons with disabilities with tasks in their everyday living at home or residential facilities.

The unfortunate challenge for agencies like HDC, in need of these positions, is that turnover can be high. Agencies are limited by rates set through the Medicaid funding streams, which often result in limited salaries for staff. Funding is complicated and is dependent on many factors. Of course, if Medicaid rates were increased, DSP salaries would likely be comparatively increased. Frequently, these employees are also needed to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. In an era when unemployment is less than 4% nationwide, with over seven million unfilled positions across the country, and some retail and service-related businesses coming into the Quad Cities (such as Costco and Kwik Star) offering a much higher starting wage, it goes without saying that competition to fill these positions is fierce.

To be sure, there is nothing glamorous about being a direct support professional. The work can be difficult and stressful, the hours may be long and challenging, but the rewards can fulfill one’s soul in unmeasurable ways that are not always apparent on a pay stub. DSPs do this type of work because they are committed to making a difference in the life of the people they serve. For many, the field has become less of a job and more of a calling.

If we open our eyes it is easy to see ordinary people doing praiseworthy work every day. Nurses, police officers, and teachers often come to the top of any list of everyday heroes, and rightly so, but the overlooked, mild-mannered direct support professionals provide a service that is often unseen and unrewarded by society. At the end of the day, the most gratifying aspect of working as a DSP is to know that you have made a difference by making sure that someone’s brother, daughter, uncle or friend is cared for, safe and loved.

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Jeff Ashcraft is president and CEO of Handicapped Development Center