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Legislation News

Federal Bill to Enable Special Tax-Free Savings
If passed, The ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act will allow individuals with disabilities to create a special savings account — an “ABLE account” — that can accrue tax-free. The money in this account can be used for just about anything related to your child’s disability: education, medical and dental care, community-based support, employment training, assistive training, housing and transportation.

Currently, families can’t have more than $2,000 in combined assets to be eligible for federal benefits. This new national legislation will mean that money in the ABLE account — similar to money in an IRA or 529 college savings plan — will not be treated as income or assets when determining eligibility for any federal program.

“It would give individuals with disabilities and their families the ability to save for their child’s future just like every other American family, and help people with disabilities live full, productive lives in their community,” explains Marilyn Tolbert, a local expert on early childhood developmental delays and director of laboratory schools (including KinderFrogs and Starpoint) at Texas Christian University.

Senators Robert Casey (D-Penn.), Orin Hatch (R-Utah), and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced the legislation, HR 1205. The bill is in committee, the first step of the legislative process; Texas representatives will weigh in when the bill reaches the House and Senate.

Let your voices be heard: Send feedback to Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison at their respective Web sites, Hutchison.senate.gov and Cornyn.senate.gov.

TX Bill Addresses State’s Long-Term Care
A bill designed to revamp the state’s long-term care system for people with disabilities — and address its long waiting lists — was introduced to the Texas Senate and House of Representatives during 2009’s 81st legislative session (Jan. 13-June 1) but was tabled in the calendar committed. The bill exemplifies the difference in two camps: the community care camp and the state institution camp.

Judy Kline of Richardson, whose 39-year-old son, Eric, lives at the Denton State School, testified against the bills. Eric has a string of diagnosis, including profound mental retardation, cerebral palsy, intermittent explosive disorder and osteoporosis. When Eric went through a medical crisis a few years ago, the experts of the Denton State School quite possibly saved his life.

“I’m all for community services, building services around the individual,” she says. “But the ones left in the state schools are the most fragile.”

The bill, HB 1589/SB 1060, seeks to give more choices to those on the waiting list for state-supported care. Although initially it would reduce the slots available for state schools, reducing the state’s reliance on them over 10 years, the bill has been amended somewhat after legislators heard testimony from state school proponents.

Andrew Crim, a North Texas father of a child with Down syndrome and a member of the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities, believes strongly in the community approach.

“The more services that can be provided in the community, the better — for the individual and for Texas’ taxpayers,” he says. “It takes, on average, about $90,000 to provide services for one person in the state school and only an average of $35,000 to provide the exact same services in the community.”

Although the bill was put on hold before legislators could weigh in, advocates like Crim hope for Governor Perry to call a special session during which HB 1589/SB 1060 could be reintroduced. In the meantime, Kline hopes those on the two sides of the issue will come together: “It’s important not to make it an us versus them issue.”

Crim agrees: “Improving opportunities and access to services for individuals with developmental disabilities is the important thing and we all need to keep that as the primary goal.”

Bill Seeks to Open Employment Opportunities
HB 785 is poised to require the State of Texas to help integrate adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the typical workforce, but the bill fell short of Texas legislators’ desks when the 2009 session closed on June 1. Area advocates are calling for supporters to write Governor Perry and encourage him to call a special legislation session later this year, during which the bill could be reintroduced. 

The unemployment rate among adults with disabilities is more than that for adults without disabilities, according to the Health and Human Services Commission committee’s report on the issue.

“While many adults with disabilities want to work,” the report states, “the support needed to fund and retain employment is frequently not available to them. Preparing a transition-aged youth with disabilities for employment by providing supported employment services to help the youth obtain and maintain meaningful employment in an integrated setting — as opposed to the current practice of placing a disabled person in a sheltered workshop or enclave — will help reverse the unemployment trend among disabled adults.”

Congressman Johnson Signs on to Special Needs Bill
On July 6, U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (3rd District, Texas) announced his co-sponsorship of legislative bill HR 1255. Johnson, who represents parts of Dallas and Collin Counties, signed on after hearing from Texans who wanted to push this measure.

If approved, this bill would require that before federally-financed class action lawsuits can be passed against facilities caring for people with disabilities, all residents and their guardians must be notified and given a chance to opt-out of the lawsuit.

Oftentimes, guardians are happy with the care provided by a facility, and strongly object to government lawsuits they have no control over. But, because there is no requirement at the moment that residents must be notified before action is taken, many of them find themselves facing closure of their current facilities against their wishes. So far, 28 federally-funded lawsuits have been filed, and 15 facilities in 9 states have been closed, affecting thousands of individuals with developmental disabilities.

The legislation was introduced in March 2009 by Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) with the backing of VOR, a non-profit organization that supports the right of individuals and families to choose a residence that best suits the needs of an individual. Currently, it has been referred to the House Committee.