National Disability Institute's Washington Insider

National Disability Institute's Washington Insider is a monthly newsletter highlighting key federal policy news that impacts the financial futures and economic empowerment of all people with disabilities. The Washington Insider tracks legislative and policy initiatives gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, specifically in the areas of taxation, asset building and economic development.


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June/July 2014 | Vol. 6, Issue 5
Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Signed Into Law
ABLE Act Moves Forward in Senate
House Education and Workforce Committee Marks Up Bill to Better Inform Students Pursuing Higher Education
Federal Agencies Mark 15th Anniversary of Olmstead Decision
New America Foundation Examines the Decline of the American Dream
Senate Convenes Hearing to Discuss Impact of Social Security Office Closures
Pew Charitable Trusts and the Senate Economic Mobility Caucus Host Discussion on Broadband in America
June Employment Profile


Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Signed Into Law

Nearly 11 years after the sunset of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), on June 22, 2014, President Obama signed into law H.R. 803, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), a bill to improve and modernize the federal workforce development system. A legislative compromise between both chambers of Congress and political parties, WIOA makes critically needed investments in our nation’s employment services, workforce development, vocational rehabilitation and adult education programs.

Among the legislation’s provisions is language prioritizing competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities and a strong emphasis on ensuring young people with disabilities have the necessary skills and training to make a successful transition to enhanced employment opportunities. Additionally, the bill applies a uniform set of accountability metrics for every federal workforce program and requires states to produce a strategic plan describing how they will provide services in a comprehensive manner; thereby, providing more people with disabilities greater, more competitive employment opportunities outside of sheltered workshops.

In addition, the legislation requires all states to develop a strategic comprehensive plan that describes their overall strategy to help meet the need for skilled workers in emerging growth areas for business and industry. The focus will be on careers and career pathways for youth and working-age adults with and without disabilities. National Disability Institute (NDI) supports the continuous improvement of American Job Centers (AJCs - formerly known as One-Stop Career Centers) and the required assessment – every two years – of their physical and programmatic accessibility for job seekers with disabilities.

Further, in order to better align the Independent Living program that serves individuals with significant disabilities living in the community with other similar efforts, the amendments transition the administration of the Independent Living program from the Department of Education to the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living. The transition moves the program to an agency with a lifespan and community focus and will better allow the program to fulfill its goal to support “independent living…and the integration and full inclusion of individuals with disabilities into the mainstream of American society.”

Finally, WIOA places strong emphasis on improving the financial literacy of our nation’s youth and adults with and without disabilities. The law supports and encourages statewide youth education activities to improve participants understanding of credit, debt and how to better manage their finances. In addition, the law assists participants in creating a savings plan and household budget and increase awareness and understanding of credit reports and credit scores. At the adult level, statewide employment and training activities must improve the coordination of employment and training activities at a local level for individuals with disabilities that also includes financial literacy activities. Required services at a local level must include “career services,” which requires the provision of information understandable to One-Stop customers on assistance through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

“Today marks an important step in renewing our country’s commitment to equal economic opportunity for people living with disabilities,” said NDI Executive Director Michael Morris. “It is refreshing and reassuring to witness senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle putting their differences aside and finding common ground on issues that matter most to the disability community, advocates and allies.”

“That being said, however, it is still our hope Congress and the Obama Administration will continue to explore ways to eliminate subminimum wage as an option for people with disabilities in sheltered employment, as well as test new strategies to build pathways to economic stability and mobility for all people with multiple barriers to employment,” Morris continued.

“We are pleased that the new law establishes an Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities, which will examine the issue of subminimum wages and Section 14C certificates,” said Morris. The Committee will be appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Labor, Thomas Perez, and will make recommendations for the Secretary on ways to increase employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as others with significant disabilities.

Prior to President Obama’s signature, WIOA overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 95 to 3 and the U.S. House of Representatives 415 to 6.

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ABLE Act Moves Forward in Senate

On July 23, 2014 the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight held a hearing on S. 313, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act.

The ABLE Act will allow Americans with disabilities and their families to create tax-exempt savings account. An ABLE account would function like a Roth IRA or a 529 Savings account. The money set aside in an ABLE account would not count as an asset when calculating a participant’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicaid. Set aside funds could be used toward specified expenses including, but not limited to: healthcare, education, housing, transportation, employment support, and general welfare.

During the Congressional hearing, four expert witnesses were invited to testify before the subcommittee. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) was the first to speak. Rep. McMorris Rodger’s son, Cole was born with Down syndrome, giving her an intimate connection and familiarity with the struggles faced by families with a child living with a disability. During her testimony, she reiterated her strong belief that children, like Cole, should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, however, as she stated, federal policies put a limit on individuals living with disabilities opportunities. She testified that outdated laws relegate those with disabilities to a life of dependency, spending assets without the ability to save.

Next to testify was Sara Wolff, a self advocate for the disability community. Wolff spoke about working two jobs, yet never being able to save as a result of current federal regulations limiting the amount a beneficiary can earn in income. For Wolff, to ensure she doesn’t lose federal benefits, she is required to earn no more than $700 per month, not nearly enough money to support herself.

Following Wolff was Robert D’Amello, a father of three, including two sons living with autism, D’Amello’s testimony focused on the concept of fairness. He asked the subcommittee, “If we can save for my 10-year old daughter, Lindsey: her education, her future, any costs she may face; why can we not do the same for all of our children?” In addition, D’Amello addressed the associated costs of caring for a child with a disability. According to recent data, the lifetime cost to care for a child with autism is nearly $1.4 million dollars and a child with an intellectual disability adds another one million dollars, pushing lifetime costs to $2.4 million. When asked by Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), “What worries you most about the future, if the ABLE Act does not pass?” D”Amello replied, “I worry the most about my sons [specifically Chris] being a burden on our daughter, Lindsey. At some point, someone in the future is going to need to look after him. Where will Chris be when I’m 60, 70, or… 90 years old?” He continued, “At 10 years old, Lindsey already doesn’t want to have kids because she is afraid of autism.”

The final panelist to speak was Chase Alston Phillips. Born with spina bifida, and currently working at Merrill Lynch to develop and implement financial strategies for people with disabilities, Phillips reminded attendees and the subcommittee, “…my story is not unlike that of many disabled Americans. Unfortunately, however, stories of success are the exception and not the norm.” At Merrill Lynch, Phillips works with numerous clients living with disabilities, and has witnessed firsthand the financial difficulties faced by many of his clients enrolled in SSDI because of the federally imposed $2,000 asset limit. As a result, many of Phillips clients are unable to live independently, find it difficult to save and pay for rent, and are struggling to simply make ends meet.

The hearing concluded with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania) remarking, “People with disabilities have a lot of ability. They want to contribute and be part of the fabric of this country. There is no reason we should be holding them back because of a flaw in the tax code.”

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House Education and Workforce Committee Marks Up Bill to Better Inform Students Pursuing Higher Education

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce convened for a June 10 Congressional markup of H.R. 3136, the Advancing Competency Based Education Demonstration Project Act; H.R. 4983, the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act; and H.R. 4984, Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act.

Of importance for students with disabilities and their families is the Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, which will streamline data on higher education for prospective students, avoiding duplication and unnecessary information. To do so, H.R. 4983 mandates a consumer-tested college dashboard that aggregates the information students need, including enrollment and graduation rates, loan repayment rates and average debt broken down by race, ethnicity, disability, and socioeconomic status. As a result, students with disabilities will be able to compare key statistics amongst all colleges and universities.

During the Committee markup, the graduation rate was identified as an important statistic because research has shown that higher rates of student debt burden is borne by those who begin college but are unable to graduate. Loan repayment rates were also highlighted because they indicate the future economic success of graduates.

Armed with this information, prospective students will be better prepared to select a college or university. For students with disabilities, this information may also indicate the ability of a prospective school in offering disability-related services, as schools with robust accessibility are more likely to have higher graduation rates and better economic possibilities for all students with and without disabilities.

H.R. 4983 was reported favorably by the Committee and awaits further consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives.  

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Federal Agencies Mark 15th Anniversary of Olmstead Decision

June 20, 2014 was the 15th anniversary of Olmstead v. L.C., a landmark Supreme Court case for Americans with disabilities. In fact, the Olmstead decision is to the disability rights movement what Brown vs. Board of Education was to the civil rights movement. 

Olmstead set the precedent that Americans with disabilities should live and work in the most integrated setting possible. In its decision, the Supreme Court explained that the "Institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life” and that “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment."

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Olmstead decision, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) held an event honoring all those involved in the landmark decision, in addition to celebrating the transformative nature the case had on the lives of people with disabilities.

The celebration kicked off with Sharon Lewis, the HHS Secretary’s Senior Advisor on Disability Policy and Principal Deputy Administrator for Community Living. “For most of us, segregation is not a fact of life. We cannot imagine someone else making basic decisions for us… Yet, for those with disabilities, those simple choices have not always been theirs to make,” Lewis said. Olmstead changed that. It affirmed that membership and community are civil rights, and people should not have to live in an institution in order to have their needs met.

HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell was the next speaker. Broadening the scope, Burwell explained, “Olmstead is a story about all of us. We are one nation and the question is: what do we as one nation stand for? Do we believe in the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): equal opportunity, full participation in the community and economic self-sufficiency? Or, are we content allowing some of our neighbors to stay in the shadows? Are we giving our fellow Americans the tools to live healthy and productive lives?  Or, are we turning our heads and looking the other way?”

Here at National Disability Institute, we are proud to say we believe in the ADA and strive to ensure all people with disabilities have the opportunity to build better economic futures. In that same spirit, Sec. Burwell affirmed HHS’ commitment to giving every American the building blocks for a healthy and fruitful life as well as transitioning people with disabilities out of sheltered institutions and into their communities and continuing to reinvest federal funds to better serve beneficiaries.

Next, Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General, and Brian Greene, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, spoke about change occurring across the country. Samuels spoke at length about court settlements under Olmstead, most significantly, the settlement in Rhode Island that addressed the use of sheltered workshops and day programs for adults with disabilities. Greene discussed the importance of viable housing options and the role it plays in the transition from institution to community. Both speakers ended with a note of cautious optimism, emphasizing the difference Olmstead has made but also reiterating the need to secure and build on Olmstead’s promises.

Following Samuels and Greene was Eve Hill, senior counselor to the Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Her message was clear, “Olmstead is not about the Supreme Court, DOJ, HHS attorneys or state budgets. It’s about people with disabilities, who now have more choices as to how they live their lives, and who can exercise these choices in terrific, amazing, extraordinary, and ordinary ways.”

The celebration concluded with a discussion on the future. Anthony Antosh, Director of the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities and Professor of Special Education at Rhode Island College, spoke on the unfulfilled promises of Olmstead and addressed the barriers of segregated schools and overly cautious governments. In the future, Antosh hopes more control will be given to people with disabilities and families, so that they can control their own lives. In his opinion, “We will fulfill the promise of Olmstead when we get to a point where any child can show up to a school, any citizen to a voting place, any employee to a work place and not ask what do we need to do – rather we just do it.” Leon Rodriguez, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, closed the celebration and challenged those in attendance to “… no longer be cautious. We can no longer wait ... We have celebrated what is past, but we have acknowledged that there are great challenges ahead of us. Today, we dedicate ourselves to those challenges.”

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New America Foundation Examines the Decline of the American Dream

On June 5, National Disability Institute (NDI) staff attended the New America Foundation briefing, “Chasing the American Dream: Who’s Left Behind, How Do They Get Ahead?” The roundtable discussion focused on the waning American dream and identified strategies to improve access to the economic mainstream for communities historically relegated to the economic periphery.

The conference opened with a back-and-forth discussion between authors Mark Rank, Thomas Hirschl and event moderator Rachel Black, Senior Policy Analyst for New America Foundation’s Asset Building Program. Both Rank and Hirschl believe, based on extensive research for their book, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Futures, that the ideal of the American dream has become the “opiate for the masses.” In other words, most of us strive to achieve the American dream, and even more work hard and play by the rules; yet, in reality, the American Dream is unattainable and offers us little more than hope. Their argument is grounded in the growth of low quality-low paying jobs, the diminished influence of unions and the volatility and fluidity of the U.S. economy. In fact, their research shows that nearly four in five Americans (79 percent) have experienced poverty for at least one year at some point in their lives. Thus, although our constitution guarantees each of us the rights to life, liberty and justice, in reality, it is “life, liberty and justice for some.”

NDI representatives were on hand because of the organization’s strong commitment and work to ensure all people with disabilities have equal opportunity to achieve their American dreams while at the same time ensuring people with disabilities can build a better economic future and improve their overall financial health. The disability community has long been marginalized in our economy. In fact, many in the disability community find it difficult to secure employment and nearly impossible to climb the economic ladder.

In that same spirit, the second half of the event highlighted strategies, policy proposals and initiatives to expand opportunities and access to the American dream for all people. One such strategy discussed was asset development. Panelists stated that individuals who hold assets are more likely to effectively weather an unexpected financial storm and achieve a more financially secure future.

NDI has been a leader in the asset development arena for the disability community and has long called for the easing of arbitrary and unfair asset limits for public beneficiaries that keep countless people with and without disabilities in poverty and prevent them from saving and planning for the future.

That is why, going forward, NDI will continue to use its leverage and position as a national leader working at the intersection of disability and economic stability to improve opportunities for all and also guarantee that when an individual works hard, and plays by the rules, that they be assured a comfortable life and an even brighter future.

For more information or to view a recording of the event, visit New America Foundation’s Chasing the American Dream webpage.

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Senate Convenes Hearing to Discuss Impact of Social Security Office Closures

On June 18th, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to examine the impact of recent Social Security field office closures and service cuts. Now, in its sixth decade of existence, the Special Committee on Aging is dedicated to highlighting and advancing public policies and initiatives that are of importance to older Americans. In fact, the committee’s work was paramount in the creation of Medicare; and as a result, the committee still maintains a special advisory role over the Medicare program, in addition to Social Security.

During the hearing, panelists shared their personal experience and perspective on the closing of Social Security field offices. One topic, which was discussed throughout the day’s agenda, was the importance of face-to-face communication as it relates to the service and delivery of both Social Security and Medicare. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) each spoke on the need for, and importance of, face-to-face communication – highlighted by the fact that many beneficiaries, including beneficiaries with disabilities, do not have access to the Internet and the complex nature of the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs require various forms of communication.

In addition to Senators Nelson, Collins and Scott, Brenda Holt, a Social Security commissioner from Florida, discussed the closing of a local Social Security branch in Gadsden County, Florida. Holt reminded audience members that Social Security office closings affect people, not just the “numbers.” Holt was joined by Tammy Delong, a Medicare specialist who testified on the reduction of face-to-face services and the corresponding negative effect on residents of Aroostock County, Maine. To drive the point home, Delong shared the story of a woman living on $460 a month and struggling to pay for health care and other basic necessities. After meeting with Delong, the woman learned of an additional $1,000 in public benefits she would have otherwise not known she was eligible to receive.

Rounding out the panel was Ms. Nancy Berryhill, Deputy Commissioner for Operations at the Social Security Administration (SSA), who spoke candidly about the pain caused by office closures and reminded the audience that SSA faced severe budget restrictions and as a result, had to restructure and prioritize field operations.

At the conclusion of the hearing, a consensus was reached among participants. All agreed office closures were unavoidable but conceded that the federal government should look to the local community for more input.

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Pew Charitable Trusts and the Senate Economic Mobility Caucus Host Discussion on Broadband in America

The Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with the Senate Economic Mobility Caucus, hosted a panel discussion, “Broadband in America: Access, Use, and Implications for Economic Security.”

Over the last decade, the Pew Research Center reports broadband has quickly become the preferred means by which Americans access the Internet. In fact, in 2000, only three percent of American households had broadband access. However, by 2013, the percentage of American families with broadband connections had swelled to 70 percent.

High-speed connectivity is becoming increasingly important to many aspects of everyday life, including education and knowledge dissemination, access to and delivery of health care, and public safety. Economically, broadband facilitates job creation, economic growth and has significant implications on family economic security and mobility. Unfortunately, however, not all Americans have access to these networks, and portions of rural America lag in the deployment of high-speed broadband compared to more urban areas.

During the event, discussion focused on the relationship between broadband access and economic security. Panelists provided an overview of the current state of broadband access; the importance of high-speed connectivity for rural communities and entrepreneurship; and highlighted emerging issues, initiatives, and ideas related to broadband use. In addition, panel participants discussed the need for more technology-relevant public policy and collaboration between policymakers and stakeholders.

The forum began with opening remarks from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Commissioner Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Sen. King emphasized the need for more regulatory certainty for broadband, while Pai explained the need for broadband in rural areas and small towns and its positive effect on job creation and small businesses.

In addition to Sen. King and Commissioner Pai, attendees heard from Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center, who discussed how age and socioeconomic factors are the largest determinates of broadband use in the U.S. Smith explained that most people 75 years of age or older do not have broadband and that African Americans and Hispanics use broadband at a lower rate compared to Caucasians, as a result of the African American and Hispanic communities being comprised of younger adults who have low earnings and lower levels of educational attainment.

Diane Smith from American Rural identified reforms and policy proposals aimed at increasing broadband use. Smith noted that businesses with broadband earned $300,000 more than those without broadband access. Smith also emphasized the need for new network opportunities that are less expensive and the need for expanded community support of private sector Wi-Fi.

The Aspen Institute’s Blair Levin spoke about the difficulties of getting everyone on board with broadband. The two main difficulties Levin identified were rural networks and high capacity next generation networks. Levin believes increased wireless access would resolve outstanding issues with rural networks. However, he stated, we must lower loan costs and allow rural companies to invest. In Levin’s opinion, if Americans are not prepared adequately for the digital age, it will be that much more difficult to be an active participant in today’s society.

The final panelist, Sarah Morris from New America Foundation, discussed the need for federal policies supporting a variety of broadband options, as broadband needs and assets vary across states and localities. Morris argued that community needs should drive community solutions for more flexible federal policies.

At the conclusion of the program, two suggestions were proposed to increase broadband access, they include: 1) rolling out broadband in more schools and libraries; and 2) the need for targeted discounts, so that lower service rates can be offered to low-income customers.

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June Employment Profile

Disability employment statistics for June show that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities was 12.9 percent. This is as a result of only 19.3 percent of people with disabilities actively in the labor force, as compared to the 69.2 percent of people with no disability who are part of the labor force. Data on people with disabilities covers those from the ages of 16 to 64 who do not live in institutions.

U.S. Disability Employment Profile
With Disability
Without Disability
Percent of Population in the Labor Force
Employment-Population Ratio
Unemployment Rate
As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-6

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