As a person with a disability and a member of a double marginalized community, I’m often asked about tools that I used while navigating the disability landscape. My name is Edward Mitchell, and I am an African American male with a C5 C6 incomplete spinal cord injury. I will share my story as it relates to one of the best-kept secrets that should not be secret – ABLE accounts.
What is ABLE?
In December 2014, the Stephen A. Beck, Jr., Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) was signed into law. This new 529A tax-advantaged saving program was modeled, in part, after 529 savings plans. With the ABLE Act signed into law, it allowed individuals with a disability, before age 26, to establish tax-advantaged savings accounts. ABLE’s design promotes the health, independence, and quality of life of individuals with disabilities by allowing families or the account owner to save money for disability-related expenses without affecting means tested benefits.
Who can open an ABLE account?
Individuals with disabilities can open an ABLE account for themselves. A parent, legal guardian, or someone given a power of attorney can open an account on a person’s behalf. The person with the disability will always be the account owner and manage it—this is a true advantage over other options such as special needs trust. Before opening an account, I encourage everybody to visit the ABLE National Resource Center website and utilize one of the ABLE Decision Guides. The purpose of the Decision Guides is to provide information useful in making decisions about opening and using an ABLE account. I personally ask that people review a decision guide prior to opening an ABLE account. Secondly, the three-state comparison tool is a great companion to the Decision Guide. This tool will allow the individual with the disability to compare the features of different ABLE account programs to choose the one that works best for them.
Who may contribute?
Once a person opens an ABLE account, anyone can contribute if the total contributions don’t exceed the annual limit (generally $16,000 per year). Additionally, in our current digital age, ABLE has also made it quick and easy for people to contribute through the Ugift portal. An account owner has a unique contribution code that can be shared with family, friends, and others that may want to contribute to honor of their birthday, Christmas, or any special occasion.
What are (QDE) qualified disability expenses?
ABLE account owners can use money from their ABLE account to pay for qualified disability expenses, which can include basic living expenses, education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, expenses for oversight and monitoring, funeral and burial expenses, and other costs related to the person’s disability.
Being an ABLE Ambassador
My journey to becoming an ABLE Ambassador was unplanned. One evening, as my mother was trying to wind herself down for the night, after helping me with my nightly routine due to lack of nursing staff, she stumbled onto the Tennessee ABLE program. Tennessee’s ABLE program is called ABLE TN. This was our eureka moment. Finally, we found a program that will allow me to save for long-term expenses without knocking me out of qualifications for the Tennessee Choices waiver program.
After opening my account, I received an email from the ABLE National Resource Center (ABLE NRC), managed by National Disability Institute (NDI), stating they were looking for ABLE account owners who would like to serve as their inaugural ABLE NRC ambassadors. Being selected as an ambassador was the beginning on my path of financial advocacy for individuals with disabilities because ABLE still seems to be the best-kept secret. There is no reason why ABLE should not be as well-known and recognized as any professional sports team logo.
While serving as an ambassador, I have had the opportunity to work alongside my fellow ambassadors and ABLE NRC on many local and national outreach events, such as FDIC Diversity and Inclusion Education Series, NDI / Prudential’s Financial Wellness webinar, and the annual #ABLETOSAVE campaign. These events push for greater education and financial advocacy by way of ABLE accounts. And, if my story does not resonate with you, one of my fellow ambassadors’ stories may. To hear firsthand what made each ambassador decide which program was best for them, and how they’re using it, please visit ABLE Ambassadors Account Owners and ABLE Ambassadors Family Members.
ABLE NRC is committed to enhancing the financial stability and prosperity of people in Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities who live with the additional and significant expenses associated with having a disability. I realize that people in the BIPOC disability community are suspicious of new programs. The absence of representation is yet another barrier in the financial education realm. That is why ABLE NRC BIPOC ambassadors are needed. I didn’t hesitate to apply. I wanted to be a part of this monumental endeavor for this community but, more importantly, help those reluctant to trust a new program and to fully embrace ABLE accounts and its many uses to help people with disabilities in everyday life. I encourage all those who are reading this to visit the ABLE NRC BIPOC Ambassador Outreach Toolkit webpage. Learn more about the toolkit and how the other BIPOC ambassadors are navigating the intersection of race and disability.
How am I using my ABLE account?
I’m using my ABLE account for long-term savings; I just recently purchased a new accessible van with the help of my ABLE account, which would not have been possible without having an ABLE account. Anytime I have additional funds from my second job or family members’ contributions, they are placed directly into the account. So, I have peace of mind knowing that I am not jeopardizing my benefits such as Choices. Next, on my financial independence journey, will be saving to purchase a wheelchair-accessible home. Like my peers, I want to experience the joy of homeownership and start a family. A short-term goal recently added to my milestones is purchasing accessible gym equipment I can use without needing assistance, which will allow me to maintain my fitness level at home and have extra time to devote to my career.
In closing, I want to maximize my abilities and better myself. My accomplishments might seem so monumental, but like everybody, I have had my peaks and valleys. Learning to persevere and keep pushing is paramount to achieving the goals that you set for yourself. Most importantly, I want to make the smooth transition possible for any individual who has sustained a disability or is a family member coping with a loved one’s injury. I want to continue to pass my knowledge on so that any and every one can benefit. If I can help you navigate it, I want to do my best to provide that comfort because living with a disability is not easy. If you would like to know more about me, follow me on social media or visit my personal website, https://edwardmitchellhitandrun.weebly.com/
About the Author
Edward Mitchell was a victim of a hit-and-run bicycle accident in 2003 when he was hit by a truck and thrown into a ditch, found by his little brother. Mitchell has quadriplegia with an incomplete spinal cord injury at the C-5 and C-6 levels. Mitchell crossed into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. by way of the Beta Pi chapter on the campus of Lane College in 2008. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in 2009 from Lane College, a private HBCU, and his MBA in 2011 from Union University. Mitchell’s injury hasn’t slowed him down: he works as an Independent Living Specialist at the Jackson Center for Independent Living in Tennessee and serves as the Fan Relations Coordinator of the Jackson Generals minor league baseball team.
In 2018, Mitchell was selected as an inaugural ABLE Advisor for the Able National Resource Center (ABLE Accounts are tax-advantaged savings accounts for individuals with disabilities). In the summer of 2018, Mitchell was confirmed by TN legislators to testify before the Washington D.C. – Senate Special Committee on Aging. The hearing was titled, “Supporting Economic Stability & Self Sufficiency as Americans with Disabilities & their Families Age.” He currently is finishing his second term on the board of the Tennessee Statewide Independent Living Council, appointed by former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. In 2021, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee appointed him to the Statewide Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Mitchell was inducted to the Lane College Hall of Distinction for the Young Alumni Achievement Award, and was honored to accept the Jefferson / Multiplying Good Award from Leaders Credit Union for advocacy for individuals with disabilities not only locally, but nationally. The Jefferson Awards, founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Senator Robert Taft, Jr., is America’s top honor for public service.
Recently Mitchell was accepted as a member of the United Spinal’s Tech Access Initiative, which brings together membership and community partners to ensure accessible technology is inclusive to everyone, including wheelchair users.