COLUMBUS — Before he began his speech on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, Nick Comstock made sure the crowd turned its attention to the woman sitting beside his wheelchair.

He asked Kamilah King — his "DSP," or direct-support worker — to stand up.

"Thank you for bringing me, because I could not be here without you," Comstock told her, as hundreds of people clapped and cheered. "I know you'll kill me later, but I'll deal with it."

Comstock, a 28-year-old Mansfield resident with severe disabilities, spoke passionately during a rally Thursday that put a spotlight on the challenges facing workers such as King. Most direct-support workers in Ohio earn $11 to $12 an hour, or less than $25,000 a year, and the disability-services industry is struggling more than ever to recruit and retain the workers needed to help thousands of Ohioans with disabilities live and work in their communities.

"If we really want integrated communities, then we are an absolute necessity," said Joshua Peterson, a direct-support worker in Coshocton County.

He said wages are "the elephant in the room," driving both worker shortages and staggering turnover rates, which approach 50 percent a year. Those who assist people with disabilities work hard and perform a multitude of important tasks — "We need to be walking Swiss-Army knives," Peterson said — and ought to be able to support themselves.

"There is no reason people should have to work two jobs with this skill," he said to applause. "If you're angry, you should be."

Mark Schlater of Toward Independence, a nonprofit agency in southwestern Ohio that serves people with disabilities, said organizers planned the gathering in hopes that workers, people with disabilities, their families and advocates can begin to speak with one voice about the workforce problems.

"That unity is deeply demonstrated today," said Schlater, whose agency and workers were featured in a Dispatch special report on the worker shortage in April. "State legislators need to hear us as well."

The worker shortage has worsened in recent years, in Ohio and throughout the nation, as growing numbers of people with disabilities leave large residential centers and work programs in favor of smaller, community-based settings. A tight labor market and lack of awareness about direct-support worker jobs also make recruitment difficult.

"We have a 20-percent vacancy rate — 160 open positions," said Scott DeLong of CRSI, a Champaign County-based nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. "We are short-staffed nearly 300,000 hours during the year."

He worries about the effect on Ohioans with disabilities. "We are seeing options and choices taken away from those we serve," DeLong said. "I have to wonder how long it will be until we have major quality issues," DeLong said.

Advocates say they'll call on legislators and public officials to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates, which pay for many of the services that direct-support workers provide. Employers say those fixed rates keep them from being able to significantly boost wages.

"We will soon be engaging in another budget process," John Martin, director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities told the crowd. "What is important for our field is that we make our voices heard."

Ben Young, a 34-year-old with cerebral palsy whose story was part of The Dispatch special report, spoke to the crowd using his voice synthesizer. He's tired of the constant churn of workers, and sad and frustrated when staffing shortages keep him from appointments and activities.

"We are here to have a louder voice," said Young, who lives in the Dayton-area. "I don't want to just get used to the way things are."

Nashay Smith, a direct-support worker in Xenia, believes she deserves higher pay but sticks with her job out of love for her clients.

"There's nothing like it," she said. "It may not fill our pockets, but it fills our hearts."