“I want to make outcasts genuinely smile,” said Antonio Myers in a recent interview.
Myers, who has autism, knows a thing or two about being an outcast—and he’s had his fair share of days spent with little reason to smile.
It wasn’t until the D.C. native turned 4 that he uttered his very first words. After struggling in his neighborhood elementary schools, he transferred to a school for students with disabilities in Rockville, Maryland, where, thanks to specialized support, he finally began to thrive. In fact, by middle school, Myers was reading at a 12th-grade level, and by the time senior year rolled around, he was winning sports accolades and graduated as class valedictorian.
Bolstered by community support from local churches, he continued to excel in college. “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,” Myers said.
But upon his college graduation in 2015, he felt adrift, unhappily bouncing from job to job, working as a marketing assistant, a mail clerk and a custodian. Following a long stretch of unemployment, the 25-year-old was determined to redirect his career focus.
“Not to dismiss the office world, but when I tried the office world, I was a little more distressed, because I wasn’t as altruistic as I naturally am,” Myers reflected.
Both kindhearted and driven, Myers has now settled into a role that seems tailor-made for his strengths. In August, he enrolled in the DSP Academy, a fledgling training and development program backed by the RCM of Washington, D.C. The six-week, customized, vocational training academy aims to educate individuals with special needs to become direct support professionals (DSPs). As its mission statement reads, “We promote opportunities for helping people with intellectual disabilities build relationships, and integrate into the community. We support each person in a positive and nurturing environment, and acknowledge their place as a valued, and viable member of society.”
Both nationwide and in the nation’s capital, there’s a shortage of DSPs, professional caregivers and other healthcare aides. Amy Brooks, the CEO and founder of the DSP Academy looked to address this shortage, while also helping those with intellectual disabilities struggling to find meaningful work.
“We’re in a workforce crisis in our field,” 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.”
Regarding Myers and his fellow trainees in the program, Brooks said, “They make wonderful employees. They just may need some specific accommodations to get either through the training, or to be able to pass the testing or the certification.”
As for Myers, he’s poised to graduate from the academy this month and feels certain he’s found his professional calling—not just by caring for others, but by showing people with disabilities that their disabilities don’t define them.
“I was months without work, and so this is my ‘big shot,’ as we call it, of being able to have steady employment,” he said. “Hopefully altruism can be my way of not taking care of just other people, but myself.”
If that sentiment is any indication, it sounds like Antonio Myers officially has his smile back.