Hugh McQuaid Photo
Shannon Knall, Connecticut advocacy chair for Autism Speaks (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Connecticut’s congressional delegates and advocates for people with autism celebrated Friday’s passage of a bill creating a new tax-free savings program for people with disabilities.

The bill, known as the ABLE Act, creates a savings plan for parents to set aside money tax free and to use the money, again tax free, to pay for expenses later in their disabled child’s life. The new plans mirror college savings programs, known as 529 plans.

“When President Obama signs the ABLE Act into law, as I hope he does, he will not only be helping to secure the future successes of those with disabilities, but he will be sending a message, the same message the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate sent when they moved this legislation forward. They said that our families matter, our children are important, their future is a priority,” Shannon Knall, Connecticut advocacy chair for Autism Speaks, said.

The plans will be available to people with both developmental and physical disabilities. Parents of children with autism say the new plans will give them a new tool to prepare for the future as their children age out of government services and enter adulthood, where employment and housing opportunities for people with disabilities are limited.

The program received final passage Tuesday as part of a larger piece of legislation. Members of Connecticut’s delegation said it was among the most popular concepts in a Congress that can’t seem to agree on much else.

“We had 87 percent of the members of the House of Representatives [who] were co-sponsors of this legislation. If you think about the ‘do-nothing Congress’ we’ve heard so much about, it is an extraordinary testament to American democracy and a testament to the [advocates] in this room,” U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said it was “the most popular measure in the United States Congress.”

“This bill was the ultimate in bipartisan support. The reason is that it speaks to core values of Americans, the ability to plan for the future, the ability to save, the ability to work and put aside money for basic human needs,” he said.

Despite its widespread support, Blumenthal said the bill can be improved. The legislation limits the total funds that can be saved in the accounts to $100,000 and caps the annual contributions to the account at $14,000. Both restrictions need to be eased, Blumenthal said.

“We need to build on it. This measure is a down payment. It’s a beginning. It’s a first step. It’s not the end,” he said. “We need to . . . keep faith with those parents and their children who may reach ages where their parents are no longer around and they will be depending on these savings.”

Lawmakers and advocates have been working since 2008 to get the legislation passed through Congress.

“Actually this is a fairly short journey when it comes to legislation in Washington, D.C. Normally it’s a decade or more before a bill goes from introduction to passage, especially one that costs money,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said. The bill costs about $2 billion. “Given that this bill took six years to pass, that’s a success story in the glacial pace of Washington, D.C.”

Still, Knall said Congress must work faster to address other challenges facing people with autism and their parents.

“In seven years, my son will be 20. He will have almost aged out of the system. He represents one of thousands of autistic children who are aging out of the system every single day. The tsunami of children becoming adults who need support, a job, a place to live, and independence is upon us and we have absolutely no plan,” she said.