Congress Approves Boost To Special Ed, Disability Programs

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Just before the end of the year, Congress approved a wide-ranging spending bill including tweaks to several programs for people with disabilities. (Thinkstock)

A newly approved $1.7 trillion federal spending bill will bring more funding for special education while expanding access to ABLE accounts and addressing the use of electric shock on people with disabilities.

The legislation, which funds the government through September, was signed by President Joe Biden just before the start of the new year.

It includes over $15 billion for special education, a $904 million jump over last year, and it extends Money Follows the Person, a Medicaid program that helps people with disabilities move from institutions to community-based living, through September 2027.

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In addition, the measure increases the eligibility age for ABLE accounts, a special savings vehicle that allows people with disabilities a way to save money without jeopardizing their government benefits. Since the accounts were established under a 2014 law, they have been limited to individuals with disabilities that onset prior to age 26. With the change, eligibility will expand starting in 2026 to include anyone with disabilities that present by age 46.

The higher age limit, which is expected to make an additional 6.2 million people eligible, had been long sought by disability advocates and others in order to broaden access and increase the number of ABLE accounts opened to help ensure that the program is sustainable.

Separately, the spending bill creates a path for the Food and Drug Administration to ban what are known as electrical stimulation devices. The devices send shocks through electrodes attached to the skin in order to condition people not to engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors. They are known to be used at only one facility in the U.S. — the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass., which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems.

For years, advocates have pushed to end the practice and in 2020 the FDA finalized a ban on electrical stimulation devices citing an “unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” But, the regulation was overturned when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined that the agency had overstepped its authority. Now, with the new legislation, Congress has clarified that the FDA has the right to institute such a ban.

“This opens the door for FDA to pass another ban without fear that it will be struck down on the same grounds,” said Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, who called the development “a step forward.”

Notably, however, Congress did not elect to increase asset limits for Supplemental Security Income recipients within the government funding measure despite a strong bipartisan push. Currently, individual SSI beneficiaries can have no more than $2,000 in assets at any given time under limits that have remained static for decades.

“It’s very disappointing that Congress didn’t take the opportunity to help lift people with disabilities out of poverty, by simply bringing the SSI asset limit out of the 1980s into this century,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc. “We will continue to push for this change in the new year.”

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