As we all appropriately applaud the heroic work being done during the COVID-19 crisis by healthcare workers, police and others on the front lines of the pandemic, I would like to ask you to add one more group of workers to your list of heroes: direct care staff at organizations serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Obviously, I could be seen as being biased on this topic. After all, Damar Services employs nearly 600 people as direct care staff. In that role, these committed individuals do exactly what their title would suggest: They provide essential care, supervision and teaching to the nearly 1,600 adults and children we serve each day.

But I’m not just talking about the direct care staff at Damar. I want us to applaud the direct care staff working in organizations like Damar across Indiana.  Organizations like Easter Seals Crossroads, New Hope of Indiana, Bashor Children’s Home, the Neuro-Diagnostic Institute, and many others also provide care 24/7 to people with a wide range of disabilities. They help with everything from basic hygiene to learning skills for the workplace. They help them learn important independence skills and positive ways to manage stress.  And they take on these tasks in settings ranging from residential facilities to private homes and, in more normal times, from schools to workplaces.

But direct support professionals don’t simply put life-altering programs and services into action; they put a human face on disability services. These days, that means they provide consistency and security to people who, very often, struggle with changes in routine. They provide compassion for people who often crave face-to-face connection to their families but, because of stay-at-home measures, can’t have it. They provide reassurance in a time of profound disruption.

Of course, they are doing all of this at the risk of contracting COVID-19. While we take every possible precaution to protect our clients and employees, there is only so much you can do when you’re working with clients who, due to sensory issues, struggle with having to put on a face mask, who might not be proficient at washing their hands and who might, in general, make it difficult to follow typical precautions.

I also should note that, because most of these essential direct care heroes are paid through government contracts that dictate how much they can be paid, they are woefully underpaid, making an average of a little more than $11 an hour in Indiana. But you wouldn’t know it to see them work. They apply themselves like they’re making much, much more.

So, please: Today as you applaud the countless heroes who are stepping up to help during this pandemic, and as you’re praying for the safety and health of those on the frontlines, please remember to include direct care staff who are providing essential care to some remarkable people. They are the backbone of services for the intellectually and developmentally disabled, and they are its heart, as well.

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