Commentary: Don’t forget disabled Delawareans, front-line workers caring for them

By Ken Sklenar

The list of heroes in these days of COVID-19 becomes longer almost every day.

From the front-line doctors and nurses to the grocery store clerks, the truck drivers and the farmers, our nation has garnered a much deeper appreciation for the invaluable contributions made by Americans at every level.

I’d like to add another workforce to that list of heroes: Those who are caring for some of our most vulnerable citizens,  people with disabilities.

In Delaware, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of adults living with a disability is 30%, even higher than the national average. People with disabilities, whether developmental, intellectual, physical, or psychological, are at high-risk for COVID-19 and are inherently dependent on their direct care staff. For many people with disabilities, self-isolation is not an option. In many instances, direct care staff assist their clients with tasks such as toileting, eating, and bathing, all of which require close personal contact.

These incredible caregivers are stepping up to the challenge. Whether they are direct care staff working in one of Delaware’s residential homes or job coaches assisting their clients who remain on the job as grocery clerks or janitors, these professionals are at their posts. They are Direct Support Professionals (DSPs,) Home Health Aides, and Personal Attendants, to name but a few. They are a lifeline for their clients, keeping them safe and healthy to the best of their ability.

They are people like Sierra, a Direct Support Professional for Easterseals who normally works in our adult day program. With the closure of our day programs due to COVID-19, Sierra started working for one of the residential providers in the state so she can continue to support one of our participants and others in her group home.

Direct support staff willingly put themselves at risk in order to do their jobs because they are dedicated to their profession and the people they serve. In most cases, they are doing it for poverty wages because government funding for the services is significantly less than the full cost to provide them. Chronically low wages for DSPs has led to unprecedented turnover rates and made recruitment, training and retention challenging. Nationally, the turnover rate for direct support roles averages at around 44%. And, that was before COVID-19.

Our ability to serve persons with disabilities in the community rather than institutional settings only goes as far as our willingness as a society to provide a stable, valued workforce to support them in their homes, at school and in the workplace.

We must act now to make sure that people with disabilities do not lose essential services that allow them to live and participate in the community. Here are some immediate steps that could preserve and strengthen community-based services for people with disabilities:

  • Assure that direct care staff has access to Personal Protective Equipment so they can do their job safety and protect the health of the people they serve.
  • Increase the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) match (what the federal government agrees to pay the states for its share of Medicaid spending) beyond the 6.2% bump already approved in earlier COVID-19 relief legislation.  An additional FMAP increase can help ensure that state governments have the resources they need to care for people with disabilities in the community-based setting where they are legally entitled to live.
  • Make substantial investments in the nonprofit agencies that provide community-based services and the workforce that supports them by increasing wages for direct support professional, home health and personal care attendant workforces.

For decades, nonprofit service providers like Easterseals, Salvation Army, Elwyn and many others have been essential partners with government in moving people with disabilities out of institutions and into the community. Now is not the time to allow this system to falter.

As a nation, it’s our responsibility to protect this population and those who care for them from the coronavirus. It is also critical that we safeguard the community-based system of care they depend on so people with disabilities are not a permanent victim of COVID-19.

Ken Sklenar is the president/CEO of Easterseals Delaware & Maryland’s Eastern Shore. To learn more about how Easterseals helps children and adults with disabilities, call 1-800-677-3800 or visit www.de.easterseals.com.