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Happy Birthday to You--Your Benefits Came Through!

When you are a kid, you cannot wait to celebrate your next birthday. Besides the party and the cake and, of course, the presents, you have the pride and excitement of being another year older. When you are an adult, you often prefer to forget your next birthday—or at least what number it is. It is still a good excuse to throw a party, and most of us will not send the presents back, but no numerical candles on the cake, please. For all of us, some birthdays carry significance. At sixteen, you can get your driver’s license. At 18, you can vote and, depending on the state, smoke certain substances. At 21, you can drink alcohol. At 65, you can get Medicare. At 66, 67, 68 you might retire—although that number is becoming more and more arbitrary, these days between longevity and the cost of living. For those that get that far, age 100 is a notable birthday and may even merit recognition in the local newspaper and a congratulatory message from your local politician. If you are a person with a disability, or the parent of one, you expect to celebrate all these milestones as well.

But there are other birthdays that are particularly significant for your situation. For example:

  • Birth. A person born with a disability is eligible for early-intervention services from birth until the third birthday. These services may include physical, occupational or speech therapy, nursing, medical and/or nutritional support, hearing and vision services and even social services and transportation and are paid for by public funds.

  • Age 14. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the meetings to review a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), that begins at the student’s age 14, to include a discussion of the services that the student will need to eventually transition out of high school and into adult life.

  • Age 16. From the student’s age 16, the IDEA requires the IEP to include concrete planning for transition supports. Transition supports may include things like instruction in daily living, practical tasks such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, banking, and basic budgeting. Other supports focus on work readiness and even on providing real-life work experiences.

  • Age 18. Eighteen in an important milestone for the purpose of applying for and securing public benefits including the Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and (depending on one’s work history and life situation) Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) through the Social Security Administration and Medicaid through your state’s Department of Human Services. Medicaid is crucial not only because it can provide heath insurance, but also because almost all adult daily living and employment support services are paid for by what are called Medicaid Waivers. In order to access these services after high school, a person must, among other criteria, have Medicaid. Although some children can qualify for Social Security and Medicaid benefits before the age of eighteen, it is difficult because the parental income and assets are “deemed” to the child, making many children financially ineligible. Eighteen is also the age at which a student becomes a technical adult. Educators (including the IEP) as well as medical providers and others are not required to inform parents about the student’s situation. Some will and some will not inform, but it is good to have a plan for maintaining parental involvement post-18.

  • Age 21. Twenty-one is a key age in most states, because the day before the 22nd birthday is the day that most students “age out” of high school and the corresponding special education services. For many children with disabilities, public high school provides not only education, but therapies, social services, and social and employment opportunities. The person and her/his family need a plan to maintain—meaning source and pay for-- any truly necessary services that are independent of the school district, once the student turns twenty-two.

  • Age 22. Twenty-two is the disability system’s marker that determines whether a person’s disability is classified developmental as per this section of the Social Security Operating Manual. If you have not already applied for Social Security disability, you definitely will want to complete the application and gain approval before your twenty-second birthday. Youth, who qualify for Social Security before the age of 22, will later qualify for what are somewhat strangely termed “Childhood Disability Benefits” (“CDB”) and which used to be called “Disabled [sic] Adult Child” (“DAC”) benefits. The nomenclature is strange because these benefits, which are based on a parent’s work record, only become available when the parent files for Social Security Disability Insurance or Retirement Benefits, a time at which the “child” in question is probably in her/his thirties or forties.

  • Age 26. Twenty-six is the age when a situation which changes for most youth does not change for youth with disabilities. Young adults and adults with disabilities are not removed from their parents’ group-health plans at 26. Instead, youth with disabilities can remain covered by their parent’s plans as long as their parents themselves remain covered. Twenty-six is also an important cutoff for the relatively new Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) plans. Although advocates are working to raise this rather arbitrary threshold, ABLE accounts under current law may only be opened by people whose disability is significant enough to qualify them for Social Security Disability benefits (whether or not they have actually applied for or have been approved for those benefits), and whose disability started before age 26.

  • Parents’ age 62-70. As noted above, young people, who qualify for Social Security Benefits before the age of 22, are then also eligible for a benefit, based on their parents’ Social Security work records. This benefit may be equal to as much as half of the higher-wage-earning parent’s full-retirement-age benefit, depending on the family situation, and is neither diminished by the parent filing early nor enhanced by the parent’s delayed filing. When the parents file, they must alert Social Security that they are also filing on behalf of an adult child with a disability.

There are personal, emotional, and social reasons to celebrate a birthday with a party with a cake and candles or ignore a birthday as one gets older, but it is important to know which birthdays trigger new rights and/or responsibilities, particularly for people with disabilities, who may use this knowledge to maximize their supports and services.

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