Letters from the CEO |

Hope Amidst Crisis: Building Abundant Communities

The dilemma

The Direct Support Workforce Shortage has been a long time coming. It has been predicted for decades but as many things, it is now exacerbated by the global pandemic. Across the state, group homes are closing because they do not have enough staff and people are being asked to move back in with family, or into larger, more institutional settings.

For many years, state demographers have been telling us the impending workforce shortage will not be a problem of pay, job satisfaction, or other “typical” recruitment and retention issues alone. Rather, the dilemma is that we do not have enough working age adults in the workforce to fill all of the existing jobs we have in Minnesota, and that includes the direct care positions that Minnesota relies so heavily on.

The Arc Minnesota contributed to a recent letter sent to Governor Walz, which lays out a number of immediate, near and long-term solutions to this dilemma. We need more hands on deck to support this crisis in the short term, and it is vital that Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) earn a livable wage. On January 11, Governor Walz issued a press release detailing a temporary 5% rate increase for service providers to recruit and retain their direct support workforce, which will be a welcome boost for exhausted care providers.

The long game

As humans our brains are wired to focus on solutions to immediate threats, which make sense because that is how our species survived and evolved. However, with today’s predicament, it is clear the immediate solutions presented are not sustainable and do not address the root causes of this dilemma.

If we want to solve this crisis, we must make structural changes that will stop and prevent it from continuing. It is essential that we reduce reliance on congregate settings—large and small—which are highly dependent on paid staff we simply do not have. It is imperative we ALSO focus our attention on combating ableism. Ableism creates separation and the belief that only “specially trained” professionals can work with or support people with disabilities, which is not true. Ableism is at the root of so much inaction and stagnation on all levels—in disability services, state systems, and society at large.

It is well within our power to build a future where we engage the abundant communities around us (neighbors, employers, property owners, faith communities, etc.) to also support people with disabilities. The work of the Abundant Community, spearheaded by John McKnight’s work, has many examples of community support we can draw on. Above all, if we work to change the narrative around people with disabilities to one of abundance, capacity, and innate worth—and put an end ableist practices and thinking—others will come to the table.

The work has already started

Long-term solutions take extraordinary effort and energy and fortunately, there are many examples of what is working across the country that we can build on. In Minnesota, we have several home and community based services and supports that lead to greater interdependence and natural supports for people with disabilities, and the marketplace is building new technology and tools as well.

Much of the focus for long-term solutions has to be on building inclusive communities that welcome children with disabilities at an early age and prevent the need for separate, congregate care. Early intervention works, and prevents the need for more intensive supports into adulthood. Inclusive childcare and classrooms allow children with disabilities to have relationships that are meaningful and translate to social capital later in life. Post-secondary education programs such as the BUILD program at Bethel University have an extraordinary success rate for people to have their own jobs and earn living wages when they complete their programs.

Large international employers like UnitedHealth Group, United Health Care, Optum Health Care and Mayo Clinic Health System have developed training and recruitment programs where their own employees mentor people with disabilities. They get a substantial return on investment and understand the capacity and value of people with disabilities in their diverse workforces. Employment Services are available to help people with disabilities find and keep jobs and build careers and personal wealth.

Housing Stabilization Services are working to support people in homes of their own. PCA, Home Care, Intermittent Crisis Supports and Remote Supports are working so that people who need 24-hour supports can live with their families, or in homes of their own. Tools like the Vitals™ App allow people to navigate their community and still feel safe and supported.

Consumer Directed Community Supports allow people to hire family, friends and neighbors, and get the tailored and familiar support they need. This self-directed model assumes that people with disabilities know best what they need to be successful and empowers them to create their own plan.

All of these things lead to financial empowerment, improved well-being, and a reduced reliance on our formal service delivery system. DSPs are a very important part of the workforce and network of supports for people with disabilities, but if our abundant communities can contribute in ways that promote belonging, we can rebalance our support system and create a more sustainable future.

Looking towards the future

Again this year, The Arc Minnesota has put forward a progress legislative agenda, focused on building a future where people are supported more fully by their communities so they have belonging, justice, citizenship and freedom. Last year, we passed monumental legislation related to inclusive childcare, informed choice in decision-making, and policies that promote inclusive, individualized supports in community. This year, we are focusing on post-secondary education, affordable housing, and much more.

There are things that are working. Let us look to those. All of this is possible and happening now. It needs to be shared so people can understand the options available. We need storytelling, mentoring, and a bold vision. We can prioritize our way out of this dilemma if we address the root causes and call on community in new ways. If you are interested in furthering this conversation, please reach out. It takes a village.

Our abundant communities are waiting to support people. Engage them. Encourage them. Let them.

Andrea Zuber
Chief Executive Officer, The Arc Minnesota

Letters from the CEO is The Arc Minnesota’s new series of blog posts from CEO Andrea Zuber about our priorities and passions as an organization.