Wearing Many Hats


Video: Invaluable: The Unrecognized Profession of Direct Support1

Direct Support Professionals are the paid staff who support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to live their lives and enjoy the same opportunities and experiences as people without disabilities. DSPs support people in whatever ways they need to enhance inclusion and independence. These workers are employed in many types of settings, including family/individual homes, intermediate care facilities, small community residential group homes, community job sites, vocational and day training programs, and others. The direct support workforce includes full-time (66%) and part-time (34%) employees (NCI, 2018). Most employers use the occupational title of Direct Support Professional, yet many DSPs may have different titles including direct support specialist, personal care assistant, habilitation specialist, job coach, residential counselor, family care provider, personal assistant, and others.2

So what exactly is a DSP? DSPs are interdisciplinary individuals who have to be able to provide whatever support is needed across a wide range of activities throughout the lifespan of people with IDD.

DSP, Direct Support professional,

In 2016, there were roughly 4.5 million direct support workers (BLS, 2016). Nearly 90% of DSPs are women, one-fourth were born outside of the United States, and one out of five lives in poverty.2 Half rely on public assistance just to support their own families. We will need nearly one million new DSPs to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in less than 10 years.3

The urgent question is, where are we going to find new DSPs and how are we going to keep them?

Invaluable: The Unrecognized Profession of Direct Support is a documentary film by he Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota exploring the underappreciated and underfunded work of direct support professionals (DSPs), the people who support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in living full lives as members of their communities. Through stories and interviews with DSPs, family members, advocates, and people with disabilities from across the country, the film honors the complexity of the work and the immense value it provides to individuals receiving support. And it asks us to take action now in strengthening the DSP workforce before the system collapses. Read more about “Invaluable” here.


  1. Invaluable: The Unrecognized Profession of Direct Support. Directed by Jerry Smith. Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, 2019. https://ici.umn.edu/product/invaluable/main
  2. Hewitt, Amy; Macbeth, Joe; and Kleist, Barbara. “The Direct Support Workforce Crisis: A Systematic Failure.” Impact, Volume 31, Number 1 https://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/311/Systemic-Failure/#Systemic-Failure. Accessed September 1, 2019.
  3. “Direct Care Worker Projected Job Openings, 2016 to 2026”.
    Workforce Data Center, https://phinational.org/policy-research/workforce-data-center/#tab=National+Data


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