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“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”

Senate Leaders Sign on to the ABLE Act

U. S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have agreed to support the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act (S. 313/H.R. 647), which would authorize tax-free savings accounts for individuals with disabilities. The ABLE Act now has 68 cosponsors in the Senate and 345 in the House. Though the legislation has broad bipartisan support, it has not yet been passed, but this public endorsement by 2 important Congressional leaders may have improved its chances of being brought to a vote and approved.

Proposed Bill to Raise SSI Limits

On March 7, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate, The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2014 (S.2089), that would raise the asset limits for the SSI program. Currently, SSI recipients can have no more than $2,000 in cash or assets to receive benefits. The new bill proposes changing the asset limit to $10,000 and would also remove restrictions on income from other sources, such as financial support from family members. The asset cap has not been raised since 1989. The bill is currently being reviewed by the Committee on Finance. A similar bill (H.R. 1601) was introduced in the House in April 2013 by Rep. Raul Grilalva (D-AZ). It currently has 13 cosponsors.

ADA Settlement Sets Precedent for Sheltered Workshop System

The U.S. Department of Justice announced April 8, 2014 that it had reached a settlement with the State of Rhode Island over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the state’s system of sheltered workshops and day programs for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. According to the Justice Department, the settlement is part of the federal government’s attempt to enforce the ruling of the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. LC, which requires the most integrated setting appropriate. The settlement will provide opportunities for those in the current system of segregated programs to work in jobs in the community at competitive pay and will also require that students receive services which will help prepare them for employment.

This settlement comes at the end of a Justice Department investigation which began in January 2013 and which found that the state relied too much on segregated programs, in violation of the ADA, and that employment conditions often resembled those in a sweat shop, with some workers earning as little as .50/hour. As part of the settlement, the state of Rhode Island has agreed to provide supported employment in jobs that provide at least minimum wage; support for leisure and education activities in the community; and transition services for students which include internships, job site visits, and mentoring.

According to the Justice Department, the settlement is already having an impact on the business community, which is a necessary partner in bringing about these changes. A department press release claims, “As a result of this commitment, the business community has already stepped up to partner with the state. The U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN), a network of Fortune 500 companies, and Walgreens will co-host a regional business summit in Rhode Island in June 2014 to explore how to improve those partnerships” (press release).

Rhode Island is certainly not the only state to rely primarily on a segregated system of services for adults with disabilities. In light of this settlement, other states may start reexamining their policies (before they are compelled to do so). Illinois has already anticipated this shift. The Illinois Employment First Act (HB 2591) became law on July 16, 2013. This new statute establishes a policy requiring that “competitive and integrated employment shall be considered the first option when serving persons with disabilities of working age” (Read more). Illinois still has a long way to go to make that policy a reality, but the climate is beginning to change. Those who would like to see more community based employment options for individuals with disabilities will now be able to look to the changes being introduced in Rhode Island and, perhaps one day, in Illinois.