Op-Ed: Advocacy needed to push initiatives for the disabled

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In the coming weeks and months, Congress will enact sweeping reductions in federal spending, finalize the 2013 federal budget and raise the debt ceiling. The cuts that will come with these decisions are not merely numbers on a ledger; they will decimate programs that directly impact the lives of the most vulnerable among us and the ability of social service agencies to serve them.

For individuals with disabilities who are aspiring for healthy, independent lives, this is a particularly critical time. The unemployment rates we associate with the slow recovery from the Great Recession pale in comparison to the persistent lack of employment opportunities that have ever been available to the disability community. The disincentive to work inherent in our social safety net, and the inability for those relying on it to build assets, makes upward mobility even more difficult.

The growing challenge for non-profit agencies to provide home- and community-based care makes independent living for many individuals with disabilities an impossibility.

This is why dozens of advocates representing a broad range of Jewish communities, religious streams, social service providers and public policy organizations traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to promote the Community First Choice (CFC) option in Medicaid and the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, both of which further the goals of ensuring individuals with disabilities can lead healthy, independent lives.

During the month of February, Jewish communities across North America observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of the needs, strengths, opportunities and challenges of individuals with disabilities in our communities and to ensure we are building more inclusive communities that celebrate everyone among us. It is also an opportunity for us to engage with lawmakers and express support for public policy initiatives that lead to better outcomes for the disability community.

The Community First Choice option, which became law under the Affordable Care Act, is an option for states to expand home- and community-based services under Medicaid. This option ensures that individuals with disabilities have greater access to assistance with activities and instrumental activities of daily living (ADLs and IADLs) and systems to ensure continuity of care and support.

California is the only state that has taken the option, which benefits states by increasing their federal matching payments for costs associated with Medicaid. We encourage more states to take the option and expand access to home- and community-based care through Medicaid.

The ABLE Act, recently introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate with bipartisan support, provides an opportunity to save private funds for the purpose of supporting individuals with disabilities in the same way a family would save money for a child’s college education. Qualified expenses under such a tax-advantaged plan would include education, housing, transportation, employment support, health prevention and wellness, assistive technology and personal support. We hope this legislation, which has broad support, will be considered as Congress discusses broader tax reform.

These two initiatives, should they be implemented and signed into law, provide concrete opportunities to enhance the ability of individuals with disabilities to live independently in their communities. The Jewish community, through its institutions and social service agencies, remains resolute in its efforts to provide for the critical needs of individuals with disabilities and their families, and to help them achieve that end.

As we continue to advocate for improved policies and initiatives that enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families, we encourage all to recognize these critical needs and lend their voices to the cause.

(William Daroff is vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office at The Jewish Federations of North America.)

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