Disability advocates had a great day in the Capitol with our DSP Wage legislation passing the House Appropriations Human Services Committee! Both the House and Senate bills will move to their respective chambers for a full vote. Monday, the Raise the Wage Coalition will meet to discuss next steps.
Bob Peterson giving testimony in the House Committee
Today celebrate our victories in the House and Senate!
I had a great discussion yesterday with Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke. See his column below.
Rex W. Huppke
I was working on a story once about adults with disabilities and, in a day program on the West Side of Chicago, watched a caregiver lovingly cradle the head of a young man and adjust his position in a wheelchair.
The man was able to move only his fingers, and even that was a struggle. Without the caregiver he was helpless, though certainly no less a person than anyone else. I thought then, and I think now, that those who care for people with disabilities, the ones who step in to handle the tasks some bodies or minds can’t manage, are earth-born angels.
And it turns out we here in Illinois aren’t treating those angels fairly. A story in Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune by my colleague Vikki Ortiz Healy starts like this:
“Organizations that provide care to people with disabilities are reporting crisis-level shortages of employees needed to feed, bathe and perform other essential tasks for residents in Illinois, a situation that has prompted the closure of some group homes and kept hundreds of families on waiting lists for services.”
The average wage for direct support professionals — the people who help people with disabilities in group homes and day service centers — is $9.35 per hour.
The story notes that the wages haven’t gone up in eight years, “leaving potential applicants in the improving economy to opt for jobs where they can make more money doing less grueling work.”
The staffing shortages are leading to the closing of some group homes and the consolidation of residents into other group homes. It’s causing parents whose children have been approved for residential services to wait with little hope for openings on the horizon.
The seriousness of a staffing shortage in this arena can’t be overstated. I spoke with Tony Paulauski, executive director of advocacy group The Arc of Illinois, and he said: “When staff don’t show up, holy cow. People’s lives can be in jeopardy. Because of this, there can be medication errors. People aren’t able to follow strict dietary requirements. In some cases we’re putting health and safety at risk. It’s serious stuff.”
The benefits of giving people with disabilities the opportunity to live in their communities, as opposed to placing them in state institutions, are enormous. They are closer to family. They have greater opportunities to work and engage in the world around them, to live full and productive lives.
Paulauski told me about Bob Peterson of Naperville, a man in his mid-40s who spent many years in state institutions. He has cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Once Peterson got into a group home, Paulauski said, “his life exploded in a very positive way.”
DHS Secretary Dimas and Bob
Peterson now does volunteer work, works in a day program in Naperville and hopes to get a job in the community. But none of that is possible without the support services he receives.
The wage issue, as with so much here in Illinois, is tied up in the budget impasse.
Bills that would raise the wage for direct support professionals to $15 per hour still need to get through the state Senate and House of Representatives, and then would need support from Gov. Bruce Rauner.
If you’re like me and you’ve spent time in group homes and around people with disabilities, making sure that the people who help them are paid fairly is a no-brainer. People with disabilities deserve as fair a shake at life as anyone, and if we can’t provide them with those opportunities, shame on us.
But even if you haven’t had a chance to get to know people like Bob Peterson, or have never witnessed the hard but admirable work that direct support professionals do, know this: Supporting people with disabilities and providing them with community living opportunities makes financial sense.
Paulauski said it costs about $60,000 per year to house a person in a Community Integrated Living Arrangement (the technical term for a group home) versus $257,000 per year to put a person with a disability in a state-run institution.
I ask two things of you on this front.
1) Get angry. This is an immediate problem that puts vulnerable people at risk. Contact your local legislators and implore them to address this issue, one that should have been dealt with years ago. An easy way to find your representatives is to go to www.elections.il.gov/districtlocator/addressfinder.aspx and enter your address.
2) Get happy. Do that by getting out and meeting people with disabilities in your community. Volunteer to help at local organizations. Spend some time with people whom we still, sadly, tend to treat as “others.” It will change your perspective and show you that the only thing separating us is the ability to do certain things.
And that separation can be bridged only by making sure good people are there to help.
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423