As a direct support professional, Andrea McMurray is a chef, property manager, health care provider, cheerleader, grief counselor, life coach, referee, teammate and mediator.
It’s a job that has McMurray brushing teeth, cleaning out fish tanks, fixing Walkmans or explaining what interest rates are while in the checkout line of Target.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that there is that much involved in it,” McMurray said of her work in assisting those with developmental disabilities at Cottonwood Inc., a Lawrence nonprofit organization.
The average starting salary for a direct support professional is $8.82 an hour, so it’s also a profession that means having to take on other jobs to make ends meet.
At one point, McMurray said, she was supervising a staff of 27 and still had to pick up a side job of busing tables at a local restaurant. That one paid more.
“There is a lack of respect for my job, which reflects the lack of respect for the people we serve,” McMurray said.
McMurray was among the speakers at Saturday morning’s forum on disability rights, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County.
The speakers stressed the need for more government funding to aid those with disabilities and the people who work with them.
With the state and federal government continually underfunding programs, social service agencies helping those with disabilities have been forced to pay their employees meager salaries. Such wages lead to high turnover rates, and ultimately the clients suffer, the speakers said.
“They have to spend weeks reteaching new staff what the they need help with, which is reminding people what their weakness are. It hurts their confidence,” McMurray said.
Direct support professionals have been the foundation of the progress made in disability rights over the past 40 years, said Tom Laing, executive director of InterHab, a group that represents Kansans with disabilities. Now that foundation is eroding.
“We are heading precariously into an area where the personal safety of those we work with and the personal safety of those that work with them is at risk,” Laing said of the lack of resources. “It will result in a service product that is unsatisfactory, then risky and ultimately tragic.”