Op-ed: Here’s The Law We Passed To Help Disabled Americans Work Towards The American Dream

May 22, 2016

You may not see it in the headlines, but there is a quiet revolution underway that is dramatically expanding opportunities available to Americans with disabilities. Sara Wolff, a disability advocate and young woman with Down syndrome, recently appeared on Amy Schumer’s late night show to explain how the Achieving a Better Life Experience, or ABLE, Act helps Americans living with disabilities. Her appearance on Comedy Central garnered both praise and awareness from viewers across the country.

I’m proud to have worked with Sara and other disability advocates to send the ABLE Act to the President’s desk. Passed in 2014, the ABLE Act is a landmark law that permits states to create tax-free ABLE accounts, modeled after the popular 529 college savings plans. In a time of stark division, the passage of the bipartisan ABLE Act is a hopeful reminder of what is possible in Washington when the cause is right.

ABLE accounts ease financial strain on families who have a child with a severe disability by making it possible to save for their child’s costly, lifelong expenses. Before the ABLE Act, people with disabilities were faced with losing access to benefits if they had more than $2,000 to their name. This policy prevented many from reaching their full potential by consigning them to a lifetime of poverty.

Every parent wants their child to have a fair shot at realizing the American Dream. That desire is no less for the parents of a child living with a disability.

Since the ABLE Act became law two years ago, 34 states have enacted ABLE programs, and the number is growing. In April, a young woman with Down syndrome became the first person in America to open an ABLE account.

Some have called ABLE accounts one of the greatest advances in improving the lives of those living with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act in 1990. In my view, ABLE accounts are a milestone in a larger movement to create opportunity and independence for those impacted by disability.

To advance this movement, I’m working with a bipartisan group in Congress that includes Senator Bob Casey and Representatives Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) on legislation that builds on the promise of the original ABLE Act, further expanding options for those with disabilities.

The first bill, the ABLE to Work Act, promotes work and self-sufficiency by allowing a person with a disability to save more money in an ABLE account if he or she is employed. Currently, annual contributions to ABLE accounts are limited; ABLE to Work allows individuals who have a job and earn income to save additional funds up to the Federal Poverty Level. It also makes them eligible for the Saver’s Credit, an existing federal tax credit for retirement savings, when they put earnings into an ABLE account.

The ability to support yourself through work is an essential element of the American dream. Many with disabilities are able to work, but our current one-size-fits-all system punishes those who do by making them ineligible for benefits they need to survive and get medical care. Work is about more than financial support; it’s about participating in society and building a sense of purpose. It’s wrong to exclude members of our community from the benefits of work.

Another bill, the ABLE Financial Planning Act, permits families to rollover savings from a 529 college savings plan into an ABLE account. Many families save for a child’s college education by opening a 529 account, sometimes before birth, only to learn that their child has a severe disability like autism. In other cases, a child becomes severely disabled in a tragic accident. In such instances, families have funds trapped in a 529 that could help cover their child’s lifelong expenses. If funds are withdrawn for anything other than college expenses, steep tax penalties kick in. The ABLE Financial Planning Act solves this problem.

Finally, the ABLE Age Adjustment Act increases the age limit for ABLE accounts from 26 to 46. Many debilitating conditions strike later in life, including multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or paralysis due to an accident. Increasing the age limit for ABLE accounts allows more individuals to save to cover the costs of short, medium and long-term care.

Giving disabled Americans the tools to lift themselves out of poverty isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue; it’s the right thing to do. For too long, our society has failed to appreciate the abilities and unique gifts of Americans with disabilities. Through employment, individuals with disabilities enrich not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them.

As it stands, there are too many barriers that prevent disabled Americans from realizing the full potential of their God-given gifts. We must keep fighting to tear those walls down.

This op-ed appeared in the Independent Journal.