Legislators, Advocates Seek Self-Empowerment for People with Disabilities

Anjan Chatterjee/Flickr

In the midst of a packed agenda at the March 15 People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) meeting, Jennifer McLaughlin, an activist and member of the group managed to slip in a few words about the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act.

The ABLE Act was passed at the federal level in 2014, and has been sporadically debated in individual state courts since then. The law would allow people with disabilities to set up tax-exempt accounts to collect funds that can be used for disability-related expenses, such as medical care, education, employment training, and assistive technology.

McLaughlin keeps an eager and positive disposition, even when discussing difficulties paying her bills. “Medicare only pays for so much,” she said. “I’m not eligible [for Social Security Disability]because of my income.”

The current Social Security system makes it very difficult for some people with disabilities to adequately provide for themselves. Since many disability benefits are only intended for those below a certain income level, recipients who work must limit both their earning potential and the amount they save.

“Social Security has income limits, and you have to stay below those numbers to keep your benefits,” said Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society. “If you go over, you put all your benefits in jeopardy.”

The average national income limit is around $733 per month, which is well below the poverty line. ABLE legislation aims to alleviate the continual poverty that many workers with disabilities fall into. Opening an ABLE Account would allow them to accumulate savings without worrying about losing benefits.

There are currently 38 states that have approved the law, according to Chris Rodriguez, Senior Public Policy Advisor at the National Disability Institute (NDI). The first programs are expected to be set up in the next few months. There are no specific dates set, but the NDI has compiled the information that is available into an easy-to-navigate infographic, which can be seen at http://ablenrc.org/.

The first iteration of ABLE Legislation required accounts to be set up within the clients’ states of residency. That has now been modified to allow residents of one state to set up an ABLE Account in another. So if a resident of a state that has not approved the ABLE legislation would like to set up an account, they will still be able to do that through another state’s ABLE program.

Despite the potential impact that this law could have on the lives of people with disabilities, McLaughlin is concerned that not enough local lawmakers are educated about it.

“I went to [city] council to talk to them about it, but they didn’t know what it was. I had to give them a copy!”

McLaughlin is now working to keep ABLE Act information spreading throughout the District, both to the local government, and those who may soon be eligible to open an account. She’s been working with the DC Advocacy Partners Program, which offers leadership training and guidance to people with disabilities and those who wish to advocate for them.

The ABLE Act’s journey from idea to reality has been long. “It’s been almost ten years, really,” said Sara Hart Weir. But Weir believes that the time will prove worthwhile, as people with disabilities gain further autonomy and dignity. “Being able to save money leads to greater independence,” she said.

At the PFFC meeting, McLaughlin expressed concern about an age cutoff, as original legislation required that ABLE account holders certify that their disability was present before age 26. Just two days after the meeting, however, the age requirement was challenged at the federal level. No definite changes have been applied yet, but the ABLE Age Adjustment Act hopes to amend the cut-off age to 46 to better account for conditions that arise later in life.

Even though adjustments like these take time to be processed and put into effect, they are still small victories. They represent change, and proof that help for people with disabilities is moving forward.

Issues |Civil Rights|Disability

Region |Washington DC

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