Able to save: New program helps people with disabilities

A Lake Stevens mom and daughter helped push for a savings program for people with disabilities.

Emma Patterson, 16, poses with Gov. Jay Inslee while she and her mother, Amy Patterson (not pictured), were in Olympia to testify about the Achieving a Better Life Experience legislation. ABLE allows people with disabilities to save money in a tax-exempt account without losing public benefits such as Medicaid. (Courtesy of Amy Patterson)

Emma Patterson, 16, poses with Gov. Jay Inslee while she and her mother, Amy Patterson (not pictured), were in Olympia to testify about the Achieving a Better Life Experience legislation. ABLE allows people with disabilities to save money in a tax-exempt account without losing public benefits such as Medicaid. (Courtesy of Amy Patterson)

LAKE STEVENS — Emma Patterson, 16, can now set aside money for college in an account designed for people with disabilities. She can save without losing public benefits.

The teen is headed into 10th grade at Lake Stevens High School. She has traveled to France, testified multiple times in front of the Legislature and has Down’s syndrome.

Her mom, Amy Patterson, has advocated for the Achieving a Better Life Experience Program, also known as ABLE, since 2010. She and other supporters pushed for federal legislation to allow the savings plans. After the U.S. law passed in 2014, Patterson turned her attention to establishing a program in Washington.

ABLE creates tax-exempt savings accounts for people with disabilities. Having more than $2,000 in cash or savings normally disqualifies people from public benefits, such as supplemental security income, food stamps or Medicaid. In an ABLE account, people can save up to $15,000 a year and $500,000 total without losing benefits. The money can be used for special education and job training, assisted transportation and housing, medical bills and other expenses to improve their quality of life.

Upward of 130,000 people might be eligible for ABLE in Washington, according to the state treasurer’s office.

Patterson now serves on the program’s governing board. Multiple laws passed over the past three years laid the groundwork and, this year, launched ABLE in Washington.

A celebration is planned Monday in Olympia.

“I just feel so strongly about this program being a way for disabled people to move forward in trying to live the lives that they want,” Patterson said. “The lives that they determine, not the lives that somebody else determines for them.”

Emma dreams of going to the University of Washington, her mom’s alma mater. Eventually, she’d like to teach art to kids at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Now that ABLE is in Washington, Patterson’s goal is to talk with administrators at the UW about a program for students with disabilities, she said. Washington State University recently announced a new two-year on-campus program for young adults with intellectual or development disabilities.

For a long time, people living with disabilities have been told not to save money because they could lose their benefits, said Peter Tassoni, the disability workgroup manager with the state.

“We’ve for the most part condemned people to living in poverty,” Tassoni said. “They can’t save up for big expenses. They can’t afford a house. They can’t afford a job coach.”

Even a generous birthday gift of cash from a relative could put benefits at risk, he said. ABLE changes that.

To be eligible for an account, someone must have a lasting disability that developed before the age of 26. They must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident. An account can be opened by them or their legal guardian.

“This might be an account that’s open for 80 years, and at different points in a person’s life it’s used for different things,” Tassoni said.

Washington ABLE is modeled after Oregon’s program, which launched in 2016. Patterson helped design Washington’s version.

“What Oregon was doing was, in our opinion, most in line of what we would like to see in Washington,” Patterson said. “Just their approach to disability positivity, and the idea that people with disabilities should be included in society.”

Earlier this year, Amy and Emma Patterson went to Olympia to testify before the Legislature and see Gov. Jay Inslee sign the bill that allowed ABLE here. It was exciting for Emma, and encouraging for her mother.

Proponents of ABLE plan to focus on outreach. More participation will strengthen the program, they say.

Recently, Patterson saw the ABLE logo on an advertisement on the back of a bus in Snohomish County.

“I just wanted to dance,” she said.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439;

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