This Novel D.C. Academy Trains People With Disabilities To Provide Paid Support For Others Living With Disabilities

shared courtesy of The Washington Post

Antonio Myers, a 25-year-old autistic D.C. native, is a student in the second class to come through a school that trains people with disabilities to care for others with disabilities. // Michael S. Williamson, The Washington Post


WASHINGTON, D.C. — For Antonio Myers, life with autism has always felt like sitting in a movie theater.

Everyone is watching the same film, said Myers, a 25-year-old D.C. resident on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. But he’s the only one wearing 3-D glasses.

“I am able to see more, behind the scenes, which enables me to understand more of what’s in front of me,” Myers said. “It makes me able to see people as human before anything else” — which makes him “very good at compassionate grieving or just bearing with people.”

He will draw on both skills in his new job: serving as a direct support professional, or DSP, for people living with disabilities in the D.C. area. DSPs, whose salaries are paid through Medicaid, serve as all-purpose aids, helping people with disabilities do a wide range of things including dressing in the morning, navigating social events and finding jobs.

Myers isn’t certified as a DSP yet, but he will be in a few weeks after he completes a new training program run by RCM of Washington, a local company that serves and supports the D.C.-area disability community. The program, dubbed the DSP Academy and launched this year, teaches and certifies locals with disabilities to help other locals also living with disabilities.

Students pay nothing, because the school — costing about $4,000 per student — is funded entirely by the District’s Department on Disability Services, which partnered with RCM on the project. Enrollees in fact receive a $50 stipend each day to help cover costs such as child care and transportation.

The DSP Academy is the first initiative of its kind in the D.C. area, and likely in the nation, experts said.

Amy Brooks, the chief executive of RCM, who dreamed up the idea a few years ago, hopes the academy will “kill two birds with one stone.” She wants to combat rampant unemployment among disabled people while also growing the workforce of DSPs, currently much too small to meet demand.

“There is just such value in someone with a disability supporting someone else with a disability,” said Susan Brooks, the operations manager for RCM and Amy Brooks’s daughter. “There’s a level of understanding and passion and loyalty and bonding that occurs that’s really special.”

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