On Dec. 16, the Senate passed the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 by a vote of 76 to 16. Following the House of Representatives’ 404-17 passage and its subsequent signing into law by President Obama, this historic law recognizes that people with disabilities have significant financial expenses throughout their lives, which must be met if they are to live independently with choice and dignity.
This important piece of legislation came to fruition through bipartisan efforts. It has long been the focus of fervent advocacy by the Jewish Community in tandem with a myriad of disability rights, faith-based and secular groups that recognized the needs for families to be able to provide for their children throughout their lifetimes. In past recent years, the efforts of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), under the leadership of William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy, and a coalition of other Jewish advocacy groups have included the ABLE Act in their agendas for National Jewish Disabilities Advocacy Month in February and for the rest of the year, as well.
There are two primary reasons to commend Congress for passing this critical legislation. For the first time, there is now expanded public acknowledgement of the ongoing needs that people with disabilities have throughout their lifetimes that go beyond the basic ones of food, shelter, and daily supports that organizations such as the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) provide.
People with disabilities have medical and accessibility needs which are often limited through traditional health insurance, Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The ABLE Act affords people with a significant disability the opportunity to contribute to a tax-exempt fund for purposes of supplementing quality of life expenses that are not funded through Medicaid. Of critical importance, these funds, within some limits, will not interfere with the individuals’ continued eligibility for Social Security payments or Medicaid.
At JFGH, we see countless examples of how the passage of the ABLE Act will benefit our participants. Individuals who are interested in joining JFGH’s Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions (MOST™) program for young adults and are not currently eligible for government support often lack sufficient funds to do so. Parents may have saved for a college or career training program for their children. Until now, they were unable to use those funds for JFGH’s unique, one year post-educational program that helps people with disabilities have the opportunity to gain additional skills to transition successfully into their adult community.
JFGH has residents whose Medicaid funds are insufficient to cover the adaptive equipment they need to live with greater independence within their homes or other living arrangements and are therefore unable to be as active in their community as they wish. In addition, residents may not have sufficient funds to cover dental care, therapeutic supports, and funeral/burial expenses which can now be pursued as attributed to the ABLE Act. Families on JFGH’s waiting list may now have greater opportunity to cover the costs for respite care.
The second reason that passage of this act is of paramount importance is that it was supported by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders. We are particularly grateful to Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a key sponsor of the legislation, which was first introduced in 2006. Its success is the result of perseverance, integrity and determined advocacy. The process itself is a reminder of the importance of our efforts to take the time to educate and sensitize our elected officials of the issues that impact our lives. It is a testament to our Democratic process that even at times of considerable political discord, the men and women who serve as our representatives, care deeply for our citizens with disabilities, and will make decisions to further empower and embolden the lives of our vulnerable neighbors, families and friends. This legislation along with the summer passage of the Workforce Innovation And Opportunity Act, has the significant potential to strongly advance the ability of people with disabilities to live and contribute more meaningfully to their communities. While much still needs to be achieved on both the federal and local levels to ensure that Americans with disabilities are fulfilling their dreams, during the holiday of Chanukah, when we warmly recall the miracles our people experienced while fighting intolerance, we wanted to recognize our legislators who value and respect the inclusion of those with disabilities into the fabric of their community.
Vivian G. Bass, CEO, Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (www.jfgh.org)