Newsletter and Subscription Sign Up

Lack of Support Professionals Hurts Workers with Disabilities

Published Thursday May 19, 2022

Author Judi Currie

Workers with disabilities experienced higher rates of unemployment during the height of the pandemic due to fewer job opportunities and higher health risks. Now despite COVID cases subsiding and employers having more job openings than candidates, people with disabilities still face a major impediment to finding work— a lack of direct support professionals.

Workers with disabilities may need a direct support professional (DSP) to help them get dressed in the morning or drive them to work, or they may need a job coach to help them with training, navigating office culture and building relationships.

There is a severe shortage of candidates to fill numerous open positions for DSPs, which in turn is preventing some people with disabilities from taking jobs.

In March, the NH Center for Nonprofits job board listed about 175 openings for direct support professionals. The Moore Center, which provides services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and acquired brain disorders, has more than 25 DSP vacancies, says Ashley Martin, director of community-based services.

David, a client of The Moore Center, has worked at Hannaford for 29 years. (Courtesy of The Moore Center)

And there is competition for this pool of workers. People who might otherwise take a DSP position are taking jobs as paraprofessionals in schools that pay more or are attracted to similar positions at nursing homes as some of those employers are offering signing bonuses of up to $750.

“All of our systems are vying for the same entry-level workers,” says Lisa Hinson-Hatz, state director of the NH Department of Education Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, which assists individuals with disabilities in obtaining and maintaining employment. “Paraprofessionals who support students with disabilities in school are another entry-level pool in a real shortage. My understanding is that in the heart of the pandemic, when individuals couldn’t get LNAs [licensed nursing assistants], some had to go into a nursing home.”

Rising Employment Stalls
This challenge comes at a time when employment among those with disabilities is on the rise.

Early in 2021, just ahead of widespread vaccine deployment, the percentage of unemployed among those with disabilities was nearly three times as high as the rest of the population. Those numbers have recovered as job gains among people with disabilities has been greater than that of the general population.

However, people with disabilities still remain woefully underemployed compared to the general population. While 83.4% of NH’s working age population (18-64) without a disability are employed, only 45.3% of those with disabilities are employed.

According to “Facts & Figures: 2021 Report on Disability in NH,” produced by the Institute on Disability/UCED at the University of NH, one out of every eight NH residents report having a disability, which includes serious difficulties with vision, hearing, mobility, cognition, selfcare and/or independent living.

There are still many employers that have not tapped into the workforce of people with disabilities, says Kelly Nye-Lengerman, director of the Institute on Disability. “There are thousands of unemployed or underemployed who could make exceptional employees and contribute to your business,” she says.

Shortage of Support Workers
As employers continue to hire more workers and bring them back to the office, the lack of transitional services needs to be addressed, says Randy Pierce, president and CEO of Future in Sight in Concord (formerly the NH Association for the Blind), which provides services and support for individuals in all stages of vision loss.

“There is a need for more employees, and you would think that would create more opportunities but only if the right resources are in place,” says Pierce. “The hybrid model, remote work and Zoom are all tools that someone who is legally blind can absolutely use, but they must have the training and during COVID, unfortunately, all of that training got put on hold.”

Nye-Lengerman says people with disabilities are “ready, willing and able” to go to work but despite the recent job gains, the shortage of direct support professionals is now holding some back. Agencies are not getting applicants, or they are quickly cycling through DSPs.  

“If we are serious about supporting workers with disabilities, we have to commit to supporting DSPs, but we don’t have a strong pipeline in the state,” says Nye-Lengerman. “You have lower wages and there are not as many pathways to economic mobility.”

She says there are a number of paths the state could take to strengthen the DSP pipeline. Some strategies include legislative action, Medicaid rate setting, partnering with area agencies and engaging with adults and students to enter the field.

“Supportive employment is such a win-win,” says Barbara Didona, director of communications and training at The Moore Center. “The Moore Center pays for the DSP to assist that worker so there is constant learning happening, and the employer is getting the job done. We universally hear about the positive impact [it has] on the culture.”

Jake, a Moore Center client, works full time and independently at Morgan Records. (Courtesy of The Moore Center)

Helping Employers
Despite the shortage, there are actions employers can take to make accommodations that make is possible for people with disabilities to join their workforce. Nye-Lengerman says many employers have already made changes to accommodate employees during the pandemic, changes that also benefit workers with disabilities. As such, employers have become more willing to provide accommodations and re-think workforce flexibility, she says.

“COVID resulted in all employers having to provide more supportive employment, to make accommodations and adjustments and take an individualized approach to helping all workers be successful. That is what we talk about within disability services,” she says.

Employers may have to reevaluate some positions and remove part of the job requirements that a person with a disability would not be able to perform, says Martin of The Moore Center. “Then they get an employee who can do most of what they need,” she says.  

Many of the nonprofit organizations and state agencies that help people with disabilities find jobs also work directly with employers. The NH Department of Education Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation offers seminars to employers to help them successfully accommodate workers with disabilities. The Department also provides job coaches to assist workers with disabilities. “We help them weave the supportive culture into their business model,” Hinson-Hatz says.

Bill Gaffney, a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, is working with CVS on a pilot program that helps people with disabilities build transferable work skills. It included sending people with disabilities for front-of-store training at various stores with the support of job coaches. “I had three very young adults, out of high school, who just needed the right opportunity in a very structured, safe environment. The intent was to learn some transferable skills, and if there was a job opening, they would be in line with other applicants but have the advantage of their news skills and knowing store management.” Gaffney says.

The CVS program job coaches and participants.(Courtesy of NH Dept. of Education)

The CVS program also brought eight students onsite to learn such skills as cleaning and inventory procedures, and soft skills like how to dress for work. The pilot also included another opportunity to learn about working in an office environment. “All of the pilots were very successful and will be used in other states,” says Gaffney.

Diversity Improves Cultures
Greater awareness about racial injustices and disparities came to the fore during the pandemic, spurring many businesses to initiate or reexamine diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Advocates say it is important to remember people with disabilities are part of the DEI equation. And that inclusion pays dividends for employers.

“A client at the Copper Door has worked there since he was in high school, about seven years. He folds the boxes, washes the tables and brightens everyone’s day,” says Martin of The Moore Center. “The Copper Door has been very flexible and supportive.”

Andrew, right, a Moore Center client, working at a Copper Door restaurant, with his job coach, TJ. (Courtesy of The Moore Center)

Another Moore Center client worked at a supermarket straightening the product on the shelves and could tell a customer where anything in the store was by shelf and aisle. “You talk about the sense of pride, there is so much intrinsic value in working,” says Didona.

The Institute on Disability has undertaken an initiative to look at the “I” in DEI. “We cannot forget that disability is a core part of DEI, and when we seek to diversify, disability should count,” says Nye-Lengerman. “There are a number of studies published about how diversifying strengthens a business financially and culturally. The first few steps are hard, but when we create spaces that are welcoming and supportive and get the ball rolling, it’s a snowball not a hardship.”

Nonprofit Employs People With Disabilities to Help Others Live Independently

For Granite State Independent Living in Concord, a statewide nonprofit working to promote independence for people with disabilities, their clients, or consumers, often become their employees creating a circle of people with disabilities supporting each other.

“We are who we serve,” says CEO Deborah Ritcey. “As an organization that supports independent living, we are required to have at least 51% of our workforce be individuals with disabilities. We employ about 700, with roughly 100 corporate employees and 600 in the field taking care of our consumers in their homes.”

Ritcey says GSIL is once again growing its workforce, in part because their consumers are more comfortable with allowing people back in their homes. She says she now sees up to 20 applications a week, but during the pandemic, the organization was lucky if it saw one.

The pandemic created challenges for GSIL’s employees. Moving to remote work was a big cultural shift for the organization, but employees have embraced it, Ritcey says. “Everyone who thought they couldn’t be remote is now able to do so,” she says. “Over the past year, we have been working with them. For some it was just building their self-confidence.”

For the workers in the field, even when the risks were high, employees really wanted to do what they could to fight the worst element of the pandemic—isolation. It always existed for this population but was made far worse by the pandemic, says Ritcey.

“They had my people, Meals on Wheels and caseworkers coming in. But during the pandemic that just stopped. This was often the sum total of their social interaction,” says Ritcey. “We recognized it and committed to go into the homes. I think our workforce recognized it as well, asking how they could help more people.”

All Stories