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Financial Security and Self-Determination for People with Disabilities During COVID-19

By Sam Miller

As COVID-19 continues to spread across America, it has exposed the many ways in which public health crises disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in our society. One such population, people with intellectual disabilities, has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. According to an analysis of data collected by NPR, people with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania and New York are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as others who contract the virus, in part due to the large proportion living in congregate settings like group homes where the chances of infection markedly increase.  

On top of higher mortality rates, the complex network of services and supports that allow people with intellectual disabilities to live independently in their communities is breaking down. Widespread job losses and a lack of accessible Internet devices have caused financial hardship and social isolation. Low prioritizations of personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution to in-home support workers by state governments has left people without assistance for their daily living activities. Disruptions in public transportation have given rise to reports of food insecurity, as people have become unable to travel for groceries. Each of these circumstances present significant barriers to independent living and increase the likelihood of placement in unsafe group homes. 

To overcome these barriers, economic self-sufficiency is critical to ensuring the self-determination of people with intellectual disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, eligibility for many of the public benefits that this population depends on, including Medicaid, SNAP, and SSI, is restricted to individuals with limited savings. Willingly jeopardizing the benefits they need to survive in order to obtain greater financial independence and the possibility of safe, independent living is a largely untenable choice for people with intellectual disabilities, one that creates a predicament only targeted policy solutions can resolve.  

Thankfully, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, passed in 2014, presents such a solution. The ABLE Act allows people to open tax-advantaged savings accounts whose funds can be used for “qualified disability expenses,” without adversely affecting eligibility for public benefits. With an ABLE account, it’s possible to pay for alternatives to services affected by the pandemic, including accessible Internet devices, PPE for in-home support workers, and grocery delivery services. Millions of people are eligible for these accounts but not all participate. Financial institutions and disability rights networks are working hard to increase the participation rate in this program. 

Having a “rainy day” savings account through the ABLE program gives people with intellectual disabilities across the nation a chance to take control of their own financial destiny, live in their communities, and receive the services and supports they need while staying safe during the pandemic.