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There are few professions (or callings) that are as dichotomous (my college education at work) in the American conscious as disability service. Almost all of us who is or has worked in disability service have heard some variation of “you’re such a good person,” or “god will reward you for your work.” We may indeed be good people and divine reward (which is always in some undefined future date) is appreciated, but we disability service providers do live in the here and now.
Here in lies the dichotomy (Professor Hamm would be proud!); the general public seems to feel (or express their) gratitude for the work that we do (sometimes in the most awkward way). After all, we provide services and support for some of the most vulnerable and powerless groups in the United States (perhaps a loved one or someone you know is a member of this group). We have cared for and taught (and learned from) these individuals. We have shared incredible triumphs and sometimes devastating loss both with and because of these folks. Indeed, I recall a “tough as nails” colleague shedding (more than a few) tears at a funeral for a resident of a home I worked at. Working in this field, I’ve also done things I would never have imagined. Indeed, one of my proudest moments (admittedly, I didn’t think so at the time) is when I became a full-fledged member of the PSC guild (NOT Professional Staff Congress but Professional SH*T Cleaner). That experience changes a person and for the better (though it takes a bit of time to recognize that).
Yet despite this, Direct Support Professionals (those who work directly with individuals with an intellectual/developmental disability) only earn about $12 an hour in NYC. This can be confirmed by a causal perusal (I may as well get some use out of my education) of employment websites. Let us use that figure of $12 an hour and say 7 hours a day for 5 days a week. That comes to $420 a week and I’m guessing $330 after taxes (where are the accounting majors?). This in turn comes to about $1320 or so a month for what is (truly) difficult physical and emotional work in one of the most expensive cities in the world. This poor pay forced many of my colleagues to work multiple jobs to keep ends in sight of each other (getting ends to meet usually meant someone was on vacation or sick and you got their hours). This of course not only impacts on job efficiency and job appreciation but it impacts directly upon the health of those we count on to ensure the good health of people with disabilities.
Admittedly, things get better as one climbs the ladder, but one should be under no illusion that wage equality exists. In general a person with an equivalent education, experience, and title will make less in disability service then in other fields. According to the Pay Scale website, an executive director makes about $71,000 a year and mid-level manager around $40,000 a year. For a good cry, contrast with other industries to see the disparity. The question is then why do people who care for people, are praised for the kind of work they do, then get the short end of the stick when it comes to being paid a decent wage?
Having said all this, I still love this field. Along with my wife (Hi babe!) and family, this field gave me direction when I had none. It gave me a purpose or as some would say; a calling. I’ve also been fortunate in that my work was noted by various supervisors (not all, unfortunately) and I’ve been promoted a few times with commiserate raises in wages. The field also largely funded my undergraduate and graduate educations. I’ve managed to stay in the field while changing focus. I recently left non-profit disability service and entered into the world of higher education disability service. The environment and the populations I work for (and with) are different but “the calling” remains the same.
Working in disability services can sometimes be difficult and often challenging (physically and emotionally) but all in all, it is an honorable field that one can be proud to be a part of. What I hope for is that one day; it can also be a field which yields wages where one will not have to work multiple jobs to support themselves or their families.
Daniel Chan is a belated student who took the 20+ year plan to get his Bachelor’s Degree. He recently received his M.A. in Disability Studies and is working on his M.S. in Disability Services in Higher Education. His proudest academic achievement is still his GED.