Fostering Equality and Opportunity for Those With Developmental Disabilities

Tomorrow legislative leaders will join Governor Patrick at Fenway Park to celebrate the passage of three bills, including one which enacts the ABLE provision. This component has the potential to transform life for families with children with autism and other disabilities.

The ABLE legislation (Achieving A Better Life Experience) establishes tax-advantaged accounts that allow families to put aside money to cover expenses like medical care, housing, education and job training for those with autism. Interestingly, our state legislation is modeled on a federal bill, supported by advocates and families around the country. On the federal level, however, this legislation has stalled, drawing the scorn of The New York Times, which praised the federal legislation as a "boon for people with disabilities, their parents and other caregivers" and chided Washington for "squelching good ideas, especially those that involve tweaking the tax code and spending a little money."

Now, more than ever, I have come to believe that when the federal government fails to act, it is incumbent upon leaders in state government to step up. During the last 12 months alone, we in Massachusetts have passed important legislation with respect to flood insurance, gun violence and, in this instance, to provide help to families affected by autism and developmental disabilities.

The stakes for families are high. In a moving account of his son Owen's struggle with autism in The New York Times Magazine, writer Ron Suskind recounted how he discovered a school on Cape Cod that could help with his unique needs. But such education comes with a price. "Lots of families run themselves into bankruptcy," he wrote. "We've spent about $90,000 a year on Owen. Actually, that's not so much higher than the norm -- autism organizations estimate that it costs about $60,000 a year to provide adequate educational, medical and therapeutic services . . . About half of that can go to school tuitions."

Having spoken to many parents in a similar position to Suskind, I felt it was incumbent on the House of Representatives to take up legislation that could be a game changer for families. We took up the bill in April. It passed the House unanimously. Democrats and Republicans alike stepped up to help families in dire need.

Through the ABLE provision, I believe the law will be a catalyst that furnishes opportunity and fosters independence for those confronting autism. This comes in addition to the expected financial benefits for both families and the state's economy.

The legislation also ensures that as the number of students with autism increases, school districts are able to provide effective education by training teachers to educate those with autism in a manner that is individualized and allows them to stay in classrooms. Like the ABLE provision, our efforts center on fostering equality and opportunity.

Each day I am reminded of the ability of legislators on the state level to make changes that improve peoples' lives. Underscored by optimism, advocates, experts and parents have come together voicing their support of ABLE. I am proud we were able to advance a law that will help parents struggling to pay for their child's schooling and give a boost to those battling adversity.