Thanks to a newly-signed 1.7 trillion dollar federal spending bill, special education in the United States will get more funding for the first time in years. It was signed just before the start of 2023 and will fund the government through September. Along with the increase in special education funds, the new budget also expands access to ABLE accounts along with the rise in special education funds. It provides a pathway for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban electrical stimulation devices.
These are huge wins for the disabled community, and they could signal that a time for positive change is on the horizon.
Special education funding
Congress’s new budget includes a 14.5 billion dollar increase in special education funding across the United States. That is an increase of 448 million dollars from last year’s budget. This huge increase makes it possible to improve special education in the United States, which is an important goal considering that 15 percent of all public school students require special education.
This special education funding doesn’t just stop at assistance in public schools. It also includes 6 million dollars more for home-based care and community support services. These services are found at libraries, community centers, and other publicly-run organizations. The increase in assistance for home-based care will significantly help those who may be unable to attend traditional school but still require special education help, like homeschooling parents.
Along with the funding for schools, communities, and individuals, Congress’s budget also includes a 10 million dollar increase in Down Syndrome research funding and a 1 million dollar increase in respite care assistance.
In response to this budget, the IRS adjusted their rules surrounding how much people can save in ABLE accounts, specialized accounts that people with disabilities can use to save for living expenses without worrying about affecting disability assistance program eligibility. The increase in annual savings ability went from $16,000 to $17,000. This was in response to the budget’s adjustment on age eligibility for ABLE accounts.
Starting in 2026, people may become eligible for ABLE accounts if their disability presents before age 46. Previously, it had to be present before age 26. This change is estimated to expand eligibility for the program to an additional 6.2 million people. It’s also been a change that has long been asked for amongst disability rights advocates.
Electrical stimulation devices
Advocates have campaigned and fought for years to ban electrical stimulation devices, which are devices that send small shocks to condition people not to engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors. Historically, these devices have been used on people with Autism to “train” them out of stimming behavior. However, advocates and people who have experienced these devices do not feel they should continue using.
Currently, only one facility in the United States still regularly uses electrical stimulation devices. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, serves adults and children with “developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems.” In 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the FDA's ban on these devices, which determined that the FDA overstepped its bounds and acted outside its authority.
However, with clear language supporting a ban on these devices and funding for alternate programs, the FDA can now be clear to act without fear of being overturned again. Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), called the development “a step forward.”
Disability advocates are disappointed in a few portions of the spending bill. One of the largest is the removal of COVID relief from the bill. Advocates called the missing COVID relief measures, such as testing, vaccination, and immunocompromised therapies, “vital” and said that, without them, “Congress is essentially abandoning high-risk Americans to face COVID without continued mitigation efforts.” (Zoe Gross, ASAN)
Despite bipartisan support, Congress elected not to increase asset limits for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients. The current numbers, which state that recipients can only have $2,000 in assets at any one time, have stayed the same for decades, and advocates were disappointed that Congress did not choose to increase the limits with this bill.
Congress has passed a 1.7 trillion dollar budget to fund the government through September 2023. This budget includes increases for special education funding in schools and home programs, an age adjustment for ABLE account qualification, and a path to banning electrical stimulation devices, which advocates have been pushing for decades. Though the bill is not perfect, what it does is very important to the rights and protections of people with disabilities.