Why would you want to be a Disability Support Worker (DSW)?

Author: Peter Cookson

Cookson, Peter, 2015 Why would you want to be a Disability Support Worker (DSW)?, Flinders University, School of Health Sciences

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For many years, a major challenge in the provision of support services to people with disabilities has been the difficulty in recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of Disability Support Workers (DSWs). The research literature has consistently reported high turn-over rates with many DSWs leaving during their first year of service. The average length of service of DSWs has also been reported as being relatively short with several studies reporting average lengths of service of between two and five years. With an increasingly aging population and a decreasing available workforce, the provision of adequate support to people with disabilities is expected to become even more difficult in the next decades.

Without direct, ‘hands-on’ support services provided by DSWs, it is unlikely there will ever be appropriate levels of support for people with disabilities apart from that provided by family and friends. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on those support services, the role of support staff and the problems they face in their work.

In 2008, a survey seeking demographic information, opinions on aspects of their work and a call for volunteers to be interviewed about their work was distributed to over 800 DSWs working in accommodation services for people with an intellectual disability in ten agencies across metropolitan Adelaide, South Australia. This study analysed the responses from the 188 DSWs who completed the survey. A series of interviews over a 14 month period from February 2009 were conducted with 15 of the respondents who volunteered.

Analysis of the data sets demonstrated that, while several characteristics such as the distribution of DSWs by age and gender were similar to those regularly reported in the literature, the average length of service was considerably longer than previously reported. In this study, the length of service ranged from 1 month to 39.7 years with a median length of 8.3 years. This service was usually in a number of different agencies and more than half of the respondents had worked for between two and five agencies. The number of DSWs with specific qualifications in disability was also higher than reported in previous research.

Key issues identified by the qualitative analysis of the DSWs’ responses raised two major areas of concern. The majority of respondents commented on the lack of adequate government funding to provide all necessary and appropriate support services to the people with disability they supported. Even more respondents were very concerned about the failure of management to involve the DSWs, many of whom had worked with a particular person for many years, in the discussion, planning and decision making of support plans for the people they supported. Many DSWs reported that this lack of recognition of their skills and the work they performed reflected an undervaluing of their role by management. More than a third of the ‘long-term’ DSWs reported that, if their discussions of issues in an individual’s support plan with supervisors and management were not seriously considered, their final coping strategy was simply to resign and move to another agency.

The limited opportunities for staff training, the need to develop new support models and approaches, the regular reduction of available support time due to staff and funding shortages and the increasing ‘business’ focus within the disability sector rather than a caring person-centred approach were also raised.

The DSWs in this study also suggested changes in the way support services are provided which may improve the provision of these services.

Key words: intellectual disability, support services, support workers, demographics, turn-over, job-satisfaction, coping

Keywords: intellectual disability, support services, support workers, demographics, turn-over, job-satisfaction, coping

Subject: Disability Studies thesis, Disability and Rehabilitation Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2015
School: School of Health Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Jerry Ford