WASHINGTON – Antonio Myers was unable to speak as a child.
His family and educational experts did not believe he would ever be able to. Finally, at the age of four, he surprised everyone when he said his first words.
But due to his autism, things were not always easy for Myers as he tried to find schools, and later work environments, that would support his needs. He was put into D.C. Public Schools in 1997, but later his family realized they would have to pay for private special education.
Although he tried to attend his neighborhood schools, it failed because “it wasn’t the best fit because of all of the elements around me that tended to disservice people,” Myers said.
However, Myers continued forward and made remarkable accomplishments. In seventh grade, he was reading at a 12th-grade level and he was the eighth-grade class president at Ivymount School in Rockville. For high school, he attended the Chelsea School in Hyattsville where he won awards for basketball and track and was valedictorian of his class.
“Also in college, I was able to have the support from the neighborhood churches, they used to feed me and we would fellowship at members’ houses. They were also my major support at that time and I had a grand time at that school,” he said. “In three and a half years I got to really learn each and every life skill and more importantly my true self, self-knowledge and self-mastery.”
After taking on a series of jobs and volunteer opportunities following his graduation from Beacon College in Florida, Myers is now taking classes at the DSP Academy to go on to help those who have faced similar struggles.
The DSP Academy, based in Washington, D.C., connects people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with the skills and certifications they need to enter the workforce as Direct Support Professionals (DSP).
As DSP’s, they will assist others with intellectual and developmental disabilities in areas such as personal care, community inclusion and independent living skills.
“The Direct Support Professional Academy, or DSP Academy, is a customized vocational training program in which when people graduate from the program, they are going to have all the training and certifications necessary to be a direct support professional in the district,” said Operations Manager Susan Brooks.
During the six-week program, participants will take required training in health and wellness, building relationships and workforce training, as well as building soft skills like community mapping and activity planning.
CEO Amy Brooks founded DSP Academy to address the national shortage of DSPs. Without enough people working as DSPs, people with disabilities are left without the services they need and those who have individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities face challenges entering the workforce.
“We’re in a workforce crisis in our field,” Susan Brooks said. “There are not enough people out there to deliver direct care currently. Lots of providers like us are finding themselves with a lot of vacancies; we’re finding ourselves having people work a lot of overtime. We kind of looked within our own agency and thought how can we proactively try to tackle this problem ourselves.”
DSP Academy is now concluding its second cohort of training. The first one took place in the spring where they focused on youth transitioning out of high school and into the workforce. The second cohort started at the beginning of August. Each cohort lasts for six weeks and must complete 120 hours of training.
Myers found the DSP Academy when he had to respectfully leave the nonprofit he was working at to find a more suitable job opportunity for himself. From there, his father helped him get in contact with RCM of Washington, which the DSP Academy runs out of.
Now, almost finished with his training, Myers has learned more about the importance of disability inclusiveness and continuing disability advocacy.
“I’m learning that we need more of us in all levels of government,” Myers said. “I’m learning that it’s important to really see people as human beings before any other societal label or any condition that this person has. I’m learning the importance of requesting reasonable accommodations as well as having a community of people to advocate alongside you.”
Through all of his challenges, Myers persevered and since graduating college has done secretarial, marketing, custodial and volunteer work at the Fred Doug National Historic Society, the National Zoo and the U.S. Department of the Interior. He was on the board of St. John’s Community Services at age 21, a commencement speaker and worked for The Brewer Foundation in disability advocacy.
Now, at age 25, he is taking on a new chapter of his life and intends to show others that their disability and what the world thinks of it does not define who they are and what they can accomplish.
“I want to continue disability advocacy…And also make sure there is adequate housing districts and neighborhoods to live in. It’s more than just about jobs; it’s about making sure all of our human needs have provisions.”