This week, Mayor Kim Norton proclaimed it DSP Recognition Week in Rochester.

What’s a DSP? Direct support professionals are people who provide skilled support to help individuals with disabilities lead a life to the best of their abilities.

I have cerebral palsy and have lived in a Hiawatha Homes residence for the past 12 years.

I moved to Rochester in 1991 because of the quality health care available. Until I had a tracheostomy, I traveled throughout the city independently, using buses or a van service to explore downtown, go shopping or see a movie. I love to go places and be active in the community. But after my medical procedure, I now need a nurse to accompany me everywhere I go in case complications arise. It can be extremely hard to get this type of care.

My residence home is the next best thing to living independently. Here I have my own room that I decorated myself (with help) and am very proud of it.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The staff work diligently to make everyone’s life as enjoyable and safe as possible. Beyond administering medications, preparing food and other daily tasks, the staff also ensure that we can safely enjoy fun activities and outings just like everyone else.

And boy, we have gone everywhere! An outing may consist of a baseball game, dinner at a restaurant or even an out-of-town trip. Many years ago, five individuals (including myself) and three staff members drove to Branson, Mo., for a week. These trips may seem like luxuries, but getting away can be very therapeutic for people who live in a group home.

Today, these kinds of trips are practically nonexistent and even day trips are limited. It’s one side effect of the workforce shortage in this important field.

I believe we need more people to work as DSPs and nurses in group homes and other places like Hiawatha Homes. There are benefits on both sides. Support workers grow as they learn more about disabilities. They’ll find that we like many of the same things: daily news, politics and sports. Some people with disabilities go to college and earn degrees. The more than 10% of Minnesotans with disabilities contribute to our state as much as other people; some just need support.

It has always been my thought that the direct support staff are not paid nearly enough for all they do. On average, professionals responsible for the safety and wellbeing of people with disabilities make less than people who work at fast-food restaurants or gas stations, even though the stakes are much higher. This is so wrong. It’s a key contributor to the workforce shortage that impacts the quality of life for me and others.

I worry that if the state does not continue to strengthen its investment in these professionals and take other steps to bring more people to this rewarding field of work, it will lead to group homes and other housing options closing, and people with disabilities will suffer the consequences.

Recognizing the value of DSPs this week is an important step toward alleviating this problem. I often joke to the staff and tell them that their job description couldn’t possibly be written down. They do so many varied, important (and sometimes unusual) things to help us live life easier.

In honor of DSP Recognition Week, I want to thank the dedicated people who do this work.

I hope this shines a light on the important contributions and unique needs of the disability community in our area and encourages you to recognize the value of direct support professionals, and consider becoming one yourself.