Shortage of professionals helping adults with disabilities pinches families, workers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For families of adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities, direct support professionals are the glue that holds things together.

While some industries are seeing an uptick in both new hires and available jobs, there's a shortage of direct support professionals.

The jobs, which provide services to families in need, are vital, but they’re not for everyone.

In Gardner, Kansas, a home – which looks like any other home in the neighborhood except for the wheelchair ramp outside – houses six adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Those adults spend their days with a staff of direct support professionals like Stephanie Starling. 

“I have a lot of fun every day,” Starling said. “Every day is a new day.”

Starling has worked for Johnson County in this role for two years, but she comes into it with a lifelong passion - her brother was in a group home. 

“You have to want to come in and help somebody every day,” Starling said. 

Starling says the staff is down one position right now, and they’re hiring. She says she can absolutely feel it when there's a shortage of these kinds of employees, because it means overtime for her, or other staff members.

“Sometimes I'll work a shift, go home for six hours, and come back and work another shift,” Starling said.

Matt Fletcher, deputy director of Johnson County Developmental Support says finding people who have a passion for this kind of work is a challenge. That’s especially true when covering odd hours, or the weekend.

“We've had to cancel some events because we didn't have the staff,” Fletcher said.

Mary Barnard knows that all too well.

“Unless you have a child, and you have to go through this life, you don't get it,” Barnard said. “You don't.”

Barnard’s daughter Allie, 31, was born with an intellectual disability. 

Allie works a few hours of the day, but still needs someone in the mornings when her mom, who's also a widow, is working a full-time job.

“People want more hours,” Barnard said. “I needed someone between 7-10 a.m. Monday through Friday, and people said it wasn't enough hours, or too early.”

Barnard stressed that she knows there are people who need support professionals more than she does.

That's why Allie's not the only reason she's hoping more people will choose this career.

“Kids like this get attached, and they're not really easy to change,” Barnard said. “It's about what you bring to somebody's life.”

There are agencies all across the metro who employ direct support professionals, including more than 70 in Johnson County.

Learn more about the career here.

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