What if millions of persons with disabilities were able to Achieve a Better Life Experience

The Achieve a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act provides a pathway to independence for persons with disabilities, not an entitlement.  

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ABLE empowers persons with disabilities to pro-actively plan and engage in creating their own futures. ABLE creates a tax-free disability savings account for persons with disabilities to cover qualified expenses - education, housing, and transportation - that federal benefits do not cover. 

The 2010 U.S. Census found over 56 million Americans - more than one in five - have a disability. ABLE offers opportunities for greater independence and freedom and financial stability and growth for individuals with disabilities. 

Yet, only individuals disabled prior to age 26 will benefit, including those with disabilities ranging from developmental and mental illness to significant childhood conditions such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other medical conditions. 

Passionate bi-partisan support led Congress to approve H.R. 647 ABLE Act of 2014 on December 3.The Senate is set to take up ABLE this week. 

Like a medical savings account, an ABLE account is a tool for flexible savings. The individual with a disability and the person’s family members and friends can contribute up to $14,000 each year to a special account in any financial institution the beneficiary chooses, for a maximum of $100,000. 

Twice as many Americans, ages 18 to 64, with disabilities - 28.4 percent (4.3 million) live in poverty compared to non-disabled Americans - 12.5 percent (22 million). 

Having an ABLE account does not affect eligibility for federal benefits programs for persons with disabilities. Coverage for Medicaid is retained regardless of the amount of money deposited. 

Individuals with a disability will have the freedom to establish an ABLE account and access to benefits that have been beyond their reach because unemployment or being under-employed and poverty. 

I have been a disability service provider for 25 years - more than half of my professional career. I founded a non-profit organization to provide programs for women with disabilities designed to increase their leadership capabilities and mentoring skills, pique their curiosity in diverse career fields and pursue education to achieve their career goals. Their quality of life increased through our health, wellness, and fitness program. 

More than half of our participants received $721 per month from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and living expenses often met or exceeded monthly SSI payments.  

Millions of persons with disabilities are snared in a SSI trap that affects employment and, thus, their poverty status. When bank accounts of people with disabilities exceed the $2,000 limit, they lose SSI and Medicaid benefits. 

What if millions of persons with disabilities had full-time and part-time employment, and were not penalized if their income exceeded $2,000? 

In this case, provisions within ABLE preclude inclusion of account holdings when eligibility for SSI or Medicaid is determined. If an account balance surpasses $100,000, SSI payments are suspended but Medicaid benefits continue. 

Dollars in a tax-free ABLE accounts can pay tuition for preschool through post-secondary education plus books, supplies and educational materials related to such education, tutors, and special education services. 

The growth of an ABLE account will help persons with disabilities with rent, purchase of a primary residence, mortgage payments, home improvements and modifications, and more. Transportation, employment, and health prevention and wellness are also included. 

Among the nearly 1,000 women with whom I worked for more than a decade, 45 percent were at or below the poverty level; 25 percent had achieved an associate’s, bachelor’s, and/or graduate degree; 68 percent graduated from high school; and 24 percent were part- or full-time employed.  

I have learned much about “disability” from those with impairments - most importantly, it is not the “disability” that disables a person. Attributions of exclusion, inequities and indifference plus stigma and stereotype from the non-disabled community disable. 

ABLE opens the doors to economic, political, social, and cultural inclusion to the largest minority population in our nation. 

Parker founded The Aurora Foundation, is a lifelong advocate for disability justice and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.