MAAPS Heart Economy: Workforce

As our nation celebrates the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this week, we face a crisis in our ability to help those who rely on the ADA. In health centers, schools, nursing and group homes across the country there are not enough workers to provide the essential care needed.
The issue is a startling lack of funding. One in four adults – 61 million American – live with a disability that impacts major life activities, according to the CDC, and 1 in 54 children have autism. We must support the front-line teachers and direct support professionals whose skilled work is critical to our children, friends and family.

The already-strained support for individuals with disabilities was broken outright under the COVID-19 pandemic. These critical jobs caring for other people can’t be outsourced overseas or automated by technology. Nowhere is this felt more keenly than special education schools, who provide skilled education, treatment and care for children and young people whose lives are transformed by the ADA.

Careers that work with students with special needs are in increasingly high demand as post-pandemic students require more complex support than ever, including special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, behavior analysts, social workers, sign language interpreters and school counselors to name a few. At the same time, we know employees are looking for mission-driven work to make the world a better place. But they must earn enough to pay their bills.

Unfortunately, right now, a fast-food restaurant worker or a bagger at a big box retail store often makes more per hour than many special education and direct support professionals. While food service workers are needed, we also need those who provide education, treatment and skilled support to special education students and adults with disabilities. We must provide a competitive salary for those entering this field, and value the often-hidden work that they perform.

Laws that protected Americans with disabilities have been underfunded for three decades. We need to change that. Three proposed acts by Congress may help America stop short-changing our students:
The Crisis in Special Education & Care Funding

  1. The Better Care Better Jobs Act, currently a proposal in Congress, expands federal funding to increase direct support wages for employees who provide services for adults with disabilities.
  2. The American Families Plan includes specific provisions to create a new pipeline for special educators into the heart-economy workforce.
  3. Full funding of the IDEA, the landmark law that makes available a free and appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities, would be transformative to the heart economy.

As we celebrate the ADA this year, let us also celebrate essential special education workers and direct support professionals. Please consider donating to your local approved special education school and join me in asking Congress to increase wages for special education and adult disability employees. We must match the value we put on these workers with respectable financial incentive, otherwise this very “human” heart of our economy will suffer.

Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools