Fulfilling the Economic Promise of the ADA

By Corey Carlisle

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. President George H.W. Bush signed the legislation into law in 1990 after former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (whose brother is hearing-impaired) famously introduced the final bill on the Senate floor using sign language.

Most know this landmark legislation’s promise to protect against discrimination and promote equal opportunity, but the ADA also aimed to promote national goals of independent living, full participation and economic self-sufficiency. Financial education initiatives dedicated to people across the disability spectrum—roughly 20 percent of the population of the United States, according to the Census Bureau—can help enable greater access to economic security for these individuals and their families.

To commemorate the historic occasion and stimulate the next generation of collective efforts to fulfill the ADA’s promise of economic self-sufficiency, the National Disability Institute held an Economic Advancement and Financial Inclusion Summit in July. The event was sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and connected leaders from both the financial service industry and disability community, as well as policymakers and regulators.

Summit attendees had an opportunity to reflect on the many areas of progress that ADA inspired, such as the passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act—signed into law in December 2014. The ABLE Act created tax-free savings accounts for individuals with disabilities that can cover a range of qualified expenses, including education, housing and transportation costs. It also helped eliminate barriers to work and saving by preventing dollars saved through these accounts from counting against an individual’s eligibility for other federal benefits programs.

Many financial institutions and other organizations interested in sponsoring financial education workshops to the disabled often use curricula designed by the FDIC. The FDIC’s MoneySmart course is available in two versions: an instructor-led version and a computer-based instruction version. Both versions consist of 11 modules: an introduction to bank services, an introduction to credit, how to choose and keep a checking account, how to keep track of your money, importance of saving, recovering from a financial setback, consumer rights, how credit history will affect credit future, making a credit card work for you, know what you’re borrowing before you buy and home ownership. A version for the visually impaired is available, and there is also an extensive section on accommodating students with disabilities.

Lighthouse of Manasota is a Florida-based nonprofit agency that provides rehabilitation training to blind and visually impaired individuals residing in a five-county region that includes Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto, Charlotte and Highlands. Lighthouse executive director Andy Reeves—who until recently was a banker with BB&T Corporation—uses MoneySmart for the Visually Impaired as part of the charity’s transition program. Their coursework aims to prepare high school students for college or for their first job. Reeves’ students participating in the program are often unaware of how to budget when they get their first paycheck, or how to begin the process of becoming a homeowner. On a recent bank visit sponsored by the local Northern Trust branch, students experienced the back office operations that coincided with the bank’s customer services offerings and were also shown ATMs equipped with braille or audio plug-ins.

Reeves says, “Helping teenagers with visual impairment, of any type, to gain confidence and make them comfortable in dealing with their own financial affairs is an important part of their education and personal growth. It is vital for our agency to have that information and support available from professional organizations.”

By promoting financial independence and empowerment for people with disabilities through education and access to capital, we can ensure everyone has an equal opportunity for success.