Friday, December 5, 2014

The ABLE Act ... Last-Minute Limitations On A Good Idea

The word Advocacy being marked by a green highlighter pen
Hope Yen, Associated Press / ABC - December 3, 2014

I was excited about the ABLE Act from the moment I first heard about it, about 3 or 4 years ago. The ABLE Act is intended to address an economic barrier well known in the disability community and virtually unknown outside it. In order to keep Social Security, and often Medicare and / or Medicaid benefits many people with disabilities absolutely need to survive, they can’t accumulate over $2,000 in savings. This means, among other things, that families have a hard time giving extra financial support to members with disabilities, and adults with disabilities risk losing secure benefits whenever wages they earn get “too high”. Essentially, millions of disabled people are punished for working too much or too hard, or for being thrifty, or saving for an important item, like a car or a house.

The ABLE Act has until very recently proposed to raise the savings limit substantially, allowing disabled people and / or family members to put up to $14,000 per year, maximum total $100,000 away in special accounts for specific independence-enhancing purposes, without that money affecting eligibility for benefits, and tax free as well. It sounded too good to be true. While the bill worked it’s way through the process, I tried on several occasions to dig up a flaw or a misunderstood concept. Always, the answers I got were positive.

Yet, I had a nagging feeling there was going to be a “but” in there somewhere. And there is.

At some point fairly recently … I’m not sure when … the bill was amended to create an age limit on eligibility. It will now only apply to people with disabilities that begin before age 26. That means a 27-year-old paralyzed in a car accident would not be able to use the ABLE Act. As it happens, it also means that a lot of people who get MS won't be eligible, I would think, since that condition typically starts when people are in their late 20s and up. Not to mention people who go blind, lose hearing, have traumatic brain injuries, or any of a myriad of serious disabilities that don't always begin in childhood. All potentially deal with the same work disincentives, and all will now be ineligible for the ABLE Act.

I have also read that in order to make the bill “revenue neutral”, some other disability-related programs will be cut, though I haven’t yet seen the details on that. An organization I greatly respect, the Center for Disability Rights, wants the Senate to vote down the bill, or pass a version that doesn’t have an age limit, and doesn’t cut other programs. I am really undecided on whether to fully advocate that at this point. Let's just say I really hope that the Senators take notice of the changes and see that there's more to them than just the typical horse-trading.

In a practical sense, it’s awful to realize that this bill will basically be of no benefit to several whole subsets of the disability community, purely because of an arbitrary age limit, presumably set to limit the bill’s costs. In  a broader sense, too, I think it reflects another unfortunate thing about the ABLE Act’s history.

Fairly early on, the ABLE Act was endorsed by a wide variety of disability organizations … the “usual suspects” of disability activism you might say … but the real impetus for the bill has always seemed come from parents of disabled "children", and from one particular organization, the National Down Syndrome Society. Maybe when push came to shove, the strongest backers of the ABLE Act may not have given much thought to adults with later onset disabilities. They might have been, perhaps naturally, thinking in terms of developmental disabilities and other conditions most often associated with “children”, and not "other" disabilities like spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, hearing or vision loss, etc. I don't know what happened or who was involved, but I do notice that a tiny minority of disability advocates is even talking about this last-minute change. It looks very much like some sort of agreement was struck and a consensus arrived at that the cuts and age limit were "okay". Maybe they are worth it, but I have a feeling there weren't many people inclined to argue to the contrary.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame advocates for maybe seeing this bill from a particular angle and fighting for it accordingly. What disappoints me more is the relative lack of enthusiasm and urgency the rest of the disability community showed towards the ABLE Act from the start. I just don’t think we had much of a voice at the table, so when the time came to cut deals, a broader constituency wasn’t there to speak up. I'm not saying other disability groups were excluded, just that they were, perhaps, not sufficiently motivated or focused.

I get the feeling that the newly truncated ABLE Act is going to pass, and that few people will notice how it was changed or what those changes say about how disability-related legislation is developed and advocated. The ABLE Act is being compared, mostly by journalists with scant experience covering disability politics, with the Americans with Disabilities Act. One difference with the ADA is that nearly the whole disability community … all ages, all disabilities … made it the top legislative priority, and for the most part prevented any particular disability sub-group group from being carved out. The ADA isn’t equally effective for all disability sub-groups, but the eligibility criteria were specifically crafted to be radically inclusive, (at least for that time), and to make no real distinction between physically, cognitively, sensory, or mentally disabled people, or between the elderly, adult, or children.

The ABLE Act is a step forward, because it sets up a mechanism to deal with a mostly unintended barrier to greater financial security. But it looks now like it will mainly benefit a vaguely defined “type” of disabled person, and their families, (read: parents), rather than the disability community as a whole … a completely unnecessary limitation on a good idea. That’s a shame and we all ought to be more careful next time not to let it happen.