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Utah's Support For People With Disabilities Improved, But Slipping

Photo of Peter Stamos and Jon Westling
Jon Reed
Peter Stamos has been working with Jon Westling for eight years.

Listen to the story here.

Utah has a mixed record when it comes to caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to Case for Inclusion 2020, a national report from United Cerebral Palsy and the ANCOR Foundation which measures how well states are supporting people with disabilities. 

It found that Utah saw improvements when it comes to helping them find jobs. Twenty-six percent of disabled Utahns are working in inclusive settings, alongside people without disabilities and earning good wages. 

And after having one of the nation’s highest turnover rates for service providers in 2014 — 80% — the state has also made big improvements in retaining support staff, bringing that number down to 41%, according to the report. 

“But that’s still pretty substantial for somebody trying to provide quality and consistent services for people with disabilities,” said Charlie Luke, executive director of the Utah Association of Community Services.

Luke said there is lots of room for improvement. And even with the lower turnover rate, that progress is now starting to slip. 

Jon Westling, a 52-year-old South Salt Lake resident with cerebral palsy, said he’s seen firsthand the difficulty of keeping staff. 

Westling’s disorder makes it difficult for him to control his movements. He’s wheelchair-bound and, while he’s able to live alone and work part-time, he still relies on a steady stream of caregivers to help him with daily tasks, such as making food, going to the bathroom, and posting on Facebook. 

“I wish I could do everything myself,” he said. “I hate relying on people, but we all have to deal with our own stuff.” 

He's seen dozens of caregivers come and go over his lifetime. But he’s lucky to have had them, because many more with disabilities in Utah go without regular help, according to Peter Stamos, assistant director of supported living services at RISE Services and one of Westling’s caregivers.

Stamos said RISE is capped right now at 50 clients, even though they get calls almost daily from others wanting help.

“We have to turn them down because we don't have the staff,” he said. 

Stamos said they will typically hire around 20-30 people each year, anticipating that most will leave at some point. If they’re lucky, two to four will stay on for an extended time. 

Part of the difficulty of keeping staff, he said, is that the job is not only unpredictable and messy, it’s low paying. The median hourly wage for support professionals is $12.48, according to the report. That’s better than the median wage in other states, like neighboring Arizona, but still difficult to get by on. 

Plus, Stamos said, new hires require a lengthy background check, which can take up to three months to complete. 

“When you hire somebody and you say, ‘we can only employ you for five hours until your background check [clears],’ they don't tend to stick around for too long,” he said.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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