When I say “disability”, what comes to mind? Does a specific person come to mind? Or an image? Is your first thought something broad and overarching or a narrowly defined vision? Think about what you’re seeing and solidify your vision. I’d like to deep dive into that picture together and maybe even challenge it a bit. But I’ll do that a little later. Let’s first take a step back and talk about a controversial topic- biases. Don’t be scared, it’s likely not what you think.
Just the other day I was talking with a friend who is a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) expert and the topic of biases came up. Biases are something we all have, it’s part of being human. In fact, it’s critical for self-preservation as biases are used to lower stress on our nervous system. Without them our brains would think everything is dangerous and we would be continuously distracted and unable to perform our daily tasks. Biases help us categorize and catalogue outside stimuli so we can easily dismiss things that are harmless rather than treat them as a threat. For example, imagine hearing a loud noise that startles you. You turn and see the noise is coming from a neighbor starting their lawnmower. To most people, this experience is not threatening so within a blink of an eye your brain will tell your nervous system “it’s just a lawnmower. Lawnmowers make loud noises but it won’t likely hurt me”. Your nervous system then relaxes and you move on with the rest of our day.
That’s a situation where a bias was helpful. In a split second your brain told your body it was safe and you continued on without hesitation. But, as you likely know, not all biases are helpful.
One of the resources we use for keeping current with special needs investment planning is the National ABLE Resource Center (also known as ABLE NRC), which is the leading source of objective, independent information about the ABLE account.1 One of the pages on their website showcases several ABLE account holders and lists their reasoning for using the 529ABLE. The diversity among these account holders shows the many faces of Disability. Several of these individuals were veterans, likely injured while serving; several were Survivors of vehicle crashes, accidents, or domestic abuse; there are autistic, blind and/or deaf individuals; people with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, MS; and individuals with more silent diagnoses such as rheumatoid arthritis, bi-polar disorder, severe fibromyalgia, schizophrenia, debilitating migraines or degenerative sight conditions. I draw attention to this because it’s probable that the picture you envisioned when hearing “disability” likely didn’t include all of these situations.
According to SSA.gov, the law defines disability as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”2 If the onset of disability occurs prior to reaching age 26 then the individual is eligible to open a 529ABLE account. The ABLE is an investment account that allows disabled individuals to have more than $2,000 in assets and still maintain eligibility to receive state and federal benefits. But not everyone uses the 529ABLE as a way to maintain benefits, that’s because it’s also a tax-favorable way to save for the long-term as the growth is tax-deferred while invested in the account and qualified withdrawals are tax-free! These individuals are saving for myriad of reasons- one wants to use the funds to purchase a home and make modifications, another wants it to pay for assistive technology and a new wheelchair, I also saw people saving for expenses such as college, graduate school, retirement, and to just have the money there to use a safety-net.
So what am I getting at with this? That not all disability looks like your definition of disability, which may mean you know a lot more people who are eligible for the 529ABLE than you first realized. As a friend and ally, you are now more knowledgeable about a program that has the potential to make a life-changing impact on someone’s life. The 529ABLE plan is relatively new which means it’s still not well-known or understood in the disability world. Your next step is to now help spread the word as far and wide as you can, as this may be the most valuable gift someone you know and love could ever receive.
1 National ABLE Resource Center. www.NARC.org. 10 August 2022.
2 Social Security Administration. https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/general-info.htm. 10 August 2022.