Helping adults with disabilities

Dorie Fain
Dorie Fain is the founder and CEO of &Wealth, a boutique financial advisory firm dedicated to helping women who are recreating their lives, with offices in New York City and Baltimore.

Published 8/18/2019 in The Maryland Daily Record 

With the increasing focus on diversity & inclusion (D&I) within our work communities, there is a growing acceptance that having a set of people who look, think, talk, act and simply are different from one another creates the most impactful and meaningful outcomes for organizations and for us as human beings.

The lens of D&I is most often focused on characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, age and geography. Far less often are developmental and physical disabilities a part of this inclusive effort.

Those most excluded from access to the work force are adults with disabilities.  Specifically, those with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD), disorders that are understood today as those on the autism spectrum.  According to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, autism is now believed to affect 1 in 59 children and as many 5 million adults in the U.S. Males are four times more likely to be affected than females (approximately 1 in 37).

With this greater understanding of the prevalence of these types of disorders comes an opportunity to change the trends of how our workforce is engaging a truly diverse employee base. In a 2017 study conducted by the Drexel University A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, researchers left with more questions than answers about the needs of this population. Some key findings reveal where the opportunity rests to expand our definition of Diversity and Inclusion.

According to Drexel’s Life Course Outcomes Survey from 2017:

  • Only 14% of adults with autism spectrum disorder held paid, community-based employment (many of those were underemployed)
  • Navigating the social dynamics of the workplace, coping with sensory overload, organizing and completing tasks, and communicating with coworkers may be challenging.
  • Young adults with autism have a difficult time following high school for almost any outcome you choose — working, continuing school or living independently.

Estimates range from 80-90% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder are either unemployed or underemployed.

529A – ABLE Account

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law 529A accounts, also known as 529 ABLE accounts. The law equalized funding options for those with a child who has been diagnosed with a disability prior to age 26.

Beyond approved education funding, money from a 529 ABLE account can be used for supportive services and programming such as skills training, animal therapeutic programs, summer camps for individuals with disabilities.

On the Saving for College website, an article written by Kathryn Flynn explains the mechanics of these plans:

ABLE plans are available to individuals who were diagnosed with a disability before age 26, with a condition expected to last at least 12 consecutive months, and who are receiving benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program or through Social Security Disability Insurance (or who can obtain a disability certificate from a doctor). Contributions are limited to $15,000 in 2018, but the recent change in tax code now allows individuals who are working to deposit an additional amount up to the current poverty level.

But perhaps the most important benefit is that individuals can save a substantial amount in an ABLE plan without hurting eligibility for government assistance. Before the ABLE Act, individuals who earned more than $700 a month or had more than $2,000 in assets risked having to forfeit eligibility for Medicaid and SSI.

Today, ABLE programs allow individuals to save as much as $300,000 in a tax-advantaged account (limits vary by state). However, once the account reaches $100,000 the individual will no longer be eligible to receive SSI benefits, but they will still qualify for Medicaid.

Why this is important

In all of my years as an adviser to families, only one client that I am aware of has an adult child with a disability. This seems somewhat impossible given the data shared by the CDC. Beyond this, I can think of only a few friends over the course of my adult life who have had children with meaningful disabilities. This also seems statistically impossible.

Since I moved to Baltimore and became familiar with the great work of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, I am much more in touch with the vast community of children, adults, families and the specialists who serve them. In November 2019, Kennedy Krieger will host a national conference, “Neurodiversity in the Workforce.” This conference will feature speakers who have adapted their work environment to be inclusive of adults with I/DD and how their businesses are thriving as a result.

It is said that until something becomes local and personal, its true importance often goes unnoticed. Being close to or observing a family experiencing the impact of what exclusion feels like is far different than learning the statistics about the impact on our society as a whole. The opportunity exists to make way for an ever-evolving workforce and including those with intellectual and developmental differences will meaningfully make way for a great resource that is currently untapped.

Dorie Fain, founder and CEO of &Wealth