For Antonio Myers, life with autism has always felt like sitting in a movie theater.
He will draw on both skills in his new job: serving as a direct support professional, or DSP, for people living with disabilities in the D.C. area. DSPs, whose salaries are paid through Medicaid, serve as all-purpose aids, helping people with disabilities do a wide range of things including dressing in the morning, navigating social events and finding jobs.
Myers isn’t certified as a DSP yet, but he will be in a few weeks after he completes a new training program run by RCM of Washington, a local company that serves and supports the D.C.-area disability community. The program, dubbed the DSP Academy and launched this year, teaches and certifies locals with disabilities to help other locals also living with disabilities.
Students pay nothing, because the school — costing about $4,000 per student — is funded entirely by the District’s Department on Disability Services, which partnered with RCM on the project. Enrollees in fact receive a $50 stipend each day to help cover costs such as child care and transportation.
The DSP Academy is the first initiative of its kind in the D.C. area, and likely in the nation, experts said.
Amy Brooks, the chief executive of RCM, who dreamed up the idea a few years ago, hopes the academy will “kill two birds with one stone.” She wants to combat rampant unemployment among disabled people while also growing the workforce of DSPs, currently much too small to meet demand.
“There is just such value in someone with a disability supporting someone else with a disability,” said Susan Brooks, the operations manager for RCM and Amy Brooks’s daughter. “There’s a level of understanding and passion and loyalty and bonding that occurs that’s really special.”
Andrew Reese, the director of the Department on Disability Services, said he believes the initiative “complements Mayor Bowser’s vision for inclusive prosperity for all residents” and aligns perfectly with his department’s mission to help people with disabilities pursue successful careers.
The twin crises of unemployment and a shortage of support personnel are in urgent need of attention, said Sarah Meek, the director of legislative affairs at ANCOR, a trade association for private companies and nonprofits that provide services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In 2018, about 20 percent of Americans with disabilities were employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (By comparison, the employment rate among Americans without disabilities was about 70 percent in the same time period, according to the BLS.)
The turnover rate among DSPs nationwide, meanwhile, clocks in at about 45 percent, Meek said. That not only leads to a dearth of DSPs — it can also significantly disrupt daily life for people with disabilities, she said.
“This person sees you naked, helps you shower, just does an incredible amount of intimate things,” Meek said. “If that keeps changing, it’s really hard to get things done.”
Myers is part of the second class, numbering 12 students, to come through the DSP Academy. The first, which graduated in the spring, comprised nine high school students, all with disabilities.
RCM placed one of the first nine graduates directly into a DSP role, Susan Brooks said, though many of the others opted to go to college instead and may join the workforce later. She is optimistic that the majority of the second class, all of whom are adults, will begin work as DSPs immediately after graduation.
They’re in for a difficult job. Working as a DSP can be grueling, and the pay is almost always minimal, Meek said. While wages vary state to state, DSPs on average earn $9 an hour, she said. In the District, it’s about $15 per hour, according to Susan Brooks.
Many DSPs quit when they realize they could make a similar amount with much less effort “at a place like Target,” Amy Brooks said.
Still, Brooks and her daughter suspect the turnover rate among DSPs who graduate from their academy will be much lower. For one thing, part of the screening process for applicants involves assessing the person’s “passion” for the work, Susan Brooks said.
All prospective students — whom RCM often identifies by working with the Department on Disability Services — must fill out an application and write an essay to gain admittance. Though the academy aims to accept people with a wide range of disabilities, all enrollees need to meet a few criteria: They must read, write and “have basic critical thinking skills in place, to be able to make decisions that would keep a person safe,” Susan Brooks said.
For Myers, the question of motivation was easy to answer.
“When I was 3, my very first words were, ‘Stop bullying my friend,’ ” said Myers, who was diagnosed as autistic at that age. “Yes, I was put on the spectrum, but I always knew my purpose and my calling” to help others with disabilities.
On a humid morning last week, he took the first steps toward accomplishing that mission, settling into an orange chair at RCM headquarters in Northeast Washington with his classmates and listening as clinical director Birhanie Tessema taught a lesson on health and wellness.
Over the course of about two hours, Tessema offered his audience tips on how to take a client to a doctor’s appointment and how to translate medical language “into the simplest terms."
“A verbal person can say, ‘I’m having pain on my left leg,’ ” Tessema said. “With someone who is nonverbal, you observe their facial expression. Or they might be limping, touching their left leg.”
Myers, arms folded across his chest, nodded in agreement.
Students who graduate from the DSP Academy emerge with several certifications, Amy Brooks said, including for basic CPR and first aid and crisis-prevention management. By law, all DSPs must possess a high school diploma or GED equivalent, a valid driver’s license, a CPR certification and pass a state background check.
As a bonus, the academy also offers lessons on the history of disability. On the first day of classes in early August, Myers learned how people with intellectual disabilities were treated in medieval times: locked up in “idiot cages” or set sail on “a ship of fools,” which paraded them from port to port — charging the public admission to come and stare — before abandoning them far from their homes.
It reminded Myers of epithets tossed his way by kids “out in public” during middle and high school: “dumb,” “stupid,” “lazy,” even “the r-word.” Once, he said, someone told him he should be “shut up in a basement.”
Those memories make Myers more determined to graduate.
“I get to show people, parents, clients that a label is not a death sentence, a spectrum is not the end,” he said. “We have to turn the tide of all this cruelty.”