Additional Standard Tax Deduction for the Blind: A Description and Assessment

Additional Standard Tax Deduction for the
Blind: A Description and Assessment
Pamela J. Jackson
Specialist in Public Finance
Government and Finance Division
Jennifer Teefy
Information Research Specialist
Knowledge Services Group
In the Revenue Act of 1943, a special $500 income tax deduction was first
permitted the blind for expenses directly associated with readers and guides. This
deduction for expenses evolved to a $600 personal exemption in the Revenue Act of
1948 so that the blind did not forfeit use of the standard deduction and so that the tax
benefit could be reflected directly in the withholding tables. Congress attempted to
target the tax benefit to low- and moderate-income blind individuals by replacing the tax
exemption with an additional standard deduction amount with passage of the Tax
Reform Act of 1986.
The extra standard deduction amount provides tax relief that recognizes the
increased costs of living and associated costs of employment for blind taxpayers. Since
many blind taxpayers have low incomes, they are able to use the additional standard
deduction amount provided under current tax law. However, this extra amount arguably
does not meet the tax tests of horizontal equity and effectiveness. The provision has not
been extended to other taxpayers with handicapping conditions because of
administrative difficulties and the loss of additional federal tax revenues. This report
will be updated in future years to reflect changes in law or in the additional standard
deduction amount that is adjusted for inflation.
Current Tax Law
Federal income tax laws provide certain allowances for the blind, the most important
of which is the additional standard deduction amount allowed to legally blind taxpayers.
Other special tax allowances are included in other provisions of the law, such as the
exception from the 2% floor for deducting employee business expenses for impairment-

related work expenses of handicapped employees.1 Only the additional standard
deduction amount for the blind, however, is discussed in this short report.
Under present law in 2008, individuals in general are entitled, for income tax
purposes, to deduct from their income in lieu of itemizing deductions a standard
deduction amount of $5,450 if single; $8,000 as head of household; or $10,900 if married
and filing jointly. In addition, each married taxpayer is allowed an additional standard
deduction amount of $1,050 if he/she is at least 65 years of age or blind; if both blind and
65 years of age or older they are each allowed an additional standard deduction amount
of $2,100. (Thus, the total added deduction for a married couple, both of whom are blind
and over 65, would be $4,200). If single or filing as head of household the additional
standard deduction amount is $1,350 for age or blindness, and $2,700 for both. However,
the additional standard deduction amount is not allowable for a dependent who is 65
years old or blind. The forgoing amounts are subject to adjustments for inflation. An
additional standard deduction for other forms of handicap is currently not allowed by
federal tax laws.
Legislative History and Rationale
The advocates of the special tax provisions for blind taxpayers justify it on the basis
of need. They argue that blind persons incur certain expenses that sighted persons
normally would not incur. For example, they say the blind often incur taxi fares to go
shopping or to their place of employment whereas sighted persons may walk or take a less
expensive form of transportation. Further, advocates say, those who are blind cannot
mow their lawn, make many necessary home repairs, or perform all their own house
cleaning. Consequently, blind persons pay for these services that would ordinarily be
performed by those with sight. An employed blind person will frequently live near their
place of employment, which may result in a higher rent than if he/she could live
elsewhere. Thus, it was the incurring of additional expenses on account of blindness that
was recognized when a special tax concession was first allowed blind taxpayers.
Initially, in introducing the provision as a deduction in the Revenue Act of 1943, the
House Ways and Means Committee stated “the committee has provided for a special
deduction of $500 from the gross income of every blind person in order to cover the
expenses resulting directly from blindness, such as the cost of readers and guides. This
would relieve many blind persons of any tax whatsoever, and would reduce the tax of
other blind persons.”2 In a later tax bill (which became the Revenue Act of 1948) the
deduction was changed to an additional personal exemption amount of $600 on the basis

1 A footnote in the General Explanation of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (H.R. 3838, 99th
Congress; Public Law 99-514) prepared by the Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation defines
such “expenses of a handicapped individual (as defined in sec. 190(b)(3)) for attendant care
services at the individual’s place of employment that are necessary for such individual to be able
to work, provided such expenses are otherwise deductible under sec. 162.” For further discussion
of the floor on deductibility of employee business expenses see the “General Explanation ...” at
pages 76-81.
2 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Ways and Means, The Revenue Bill of 1943, report to
accompany H.R. 3687, H.Rept. 871, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: GPO, 1943), p. 21.

of these same considerations. In discussing the change, the House Ways and Means
Committee noted that blind persons were benefitted by more than the $100 increase in
amount. By substituting the exemption for the deduction, blind persons did not forfeit the
ability to use the standard deduction. Additionally, as a personal exemption, it was easier
to reflect the tax benefit in the income tax withholding tables so that tax relief was
provided throughout the year rather than having to wait for a refund after tax filing.3
The tax provision for the blind in the Revenue Act of 1948 was incorporated in the
Internal Revenue Code of 1954, substantially unchanged. As the personal exemption
increased over the years, so too did the amount of the additional exemption provided the
blind. The exemption amount increased from $625 in 1970 to $1,080 in 1986.
A comprehensive revision of the income tax code was made with enactment of the
Tax Reform Act of 1986 — designed to lead to a fairer, more efficient and simpler tax
system. The act broadened the tax base so that tax rates could be lowered by removing
the preferential treatment of certain classes of income and expenditures (e.g., capital
gains, two-earner wage deduction, personal interest deductions, etc.). Further, the act
provided for the repeal of the dividend exclusion, the political contributions credit and the
provision of income averaging for all taxpayers. Both the personal exemption amount and
the standard deduction amounts were raised, thus reducing the number of taxpayers who
would find it advantageous to itemize their deductions. Further, the act repealed the
additional personal exemption amount for the blind (and elderly) and in its place instituted
an extra standard deduction amount for both blind and/or elderly taxpayers. This
additional standard deduction amount is combined with the increased standard deduction
provided by the 1986 act.4 Both the standard deduction and additional standard deduction
amount for blind and/or elderly taxpayers were indexed for inflation in future years.
In general, higher income taxpayers are more likely to itemize while lower and
moderate income taxpayers more frequently use the standard deduction. The personal
exemption is typically of greater value to higher income than lower income taxpayers.5
Thus, Congress in the 1986 tax act effectively targeted the tax benefits to lower and
moderate income elderly and blind taxpayers by substituting an additional standard
deduction amount for the additional personal exemption permitted under prior law.

3 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Ways and Means. Revenue Act of 1948, report to
accompany H.R. 4790, H.Rept. 1274, 80th Cong., 2nd sess. ( Washington: GPO, 1948), p. 20-21.
4 The higher standard deduction amounts were effective one year earlier (1987) for elderly or
blind individuals.
5 The 1986 act provided that beginning in 1988, the personal exemption is reduced (or phased out
serially) for high-income taxpayers. The phaseout levels are adjusted for inflation. In the
Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, P.L. 107-16, a modification
provides for a five-year phase-in of the repeal of the personal exemption phase-out beginning in


Advocates of the blind justify special tax treatment on the basis of need. It is argued
that the blind face increased living costs. These costs arise from the need to hire readers
and guides, etc. The blind are also frequently faced with additional expenses associated
with earning income. These expenses are typically in the form of cab fares, specialized
work equipment, etc. To the extent that the blind make these expenditures, it affects their
ability to pay income taxes. Thus, the extra standard deduction amount can be seen as an
attempt to compensate the blind for these added living and business expenses. However,
as discussed below, it may also be said that the additional standard deduction accorded
the blind does not meet horizontal equity principles in that all taxpayers with equal net
incomes are not treated equally.
Many blind individuals have low incomes. Low-income taxpayers most frequently
use the standard deduction while higher income taxpayers are more likely than low-
income individuals to itemize deductible items. Thus, as an additional standard deduction
amount, this tax benefit for the blind is more likely to go to lower or moderate income
blind taxpayers than higher income blind taxpayers who are more likely to itemize
However, if this tax provision is truly based on need, then one objection opponents
offer is that the provision does not offer equivalent treatment to other taxpayers with
different handicapping conditions who may be in as much need of tax relief. For, just as
the blind often incur special expenses due to their blindness, many other handicapped
persons (e.g. amputees, learning disabled, hearing impaired, etc.) also incur special
expenses due to their individual impairments. Some of the special expenditures made by
the blind are frequently the same types of expenditures made by those with other
handicapping conditions (i.e., travel costs to work or home, upkeep and repair services).
Further, like the blind, the handicapped as a class usually have low incomes.
It has been suggested that equity may not be the best tool to measure the merits of
the additional standard deduction for blind taxpayers. Rather than equity, the question has
been raised as to its effectiveness (that is, does the added standard deduction amount aid
those needing tax relief?). The provision fails the effectiveness test since some low-
income blind individuals, who already would be exempt from tax without the benefit of
the additional standard deduction amount, receive no benefit. While these individuals are
the most in need of financial assistance, they receive no benefit from the tax concession.
Additionally, the provision does not benefit those blind taxpayers who itemize deductions
(for example, those with large medical expenditures). Moreover, the value of the
additional standard deduction amount is of greater benefit to higher rather than lower
income taxpayers (in those cases where the taxpayer does not itemize). As mentioned in
the brief summary of the law, a taxpayer that supports a blind dependent may not claim
the additional standard deduction amount. Some believe that a taxpayer who incurs
additional expenses on behalf of a blind dependent has as much justification to claim the
additional standard deduction amount as that dependent.
Questions arise as to why the provision for the blind has not spread to those
taxpayers with other serious handicapping conditions. The legislative history indicates
that administrative reasons initially precluded the addition of other handicapping

provisions.6 Critics have argued that if it is appropriate and desirable to provide a subsidy
to the lower-income blind, then similar subsidies should also be provided to other lower-
income groups facing equivalent handicaps. Some have supported a shift from tax
provisions to a grant program, since under a grant program, the revenue costs are known
and benefits precisely targeted with conclusive rules and regulations. (However, a grant
results in taxable income to the recipient unless specifically excluded by statute.)
The current provision leads to pressures for tax concessions from other similar
groups. However, the passage of an act, which allows many other handicaps the same tax
advantage as the blind, would result in a substantial loss of revenue to the federal
government. In general, enforcement procedures under the congressional budget process
may raise significant hurdles to the consideration of legislation that would cause an
additional revenue loss that is not accommodated by the annual budget resolution. Even
so, legislation proposing such a revenue loss may be considered without triggering
procedural sanctions if it is supported by majorities in the House and Senate sufficient to
waive the enforcement procedures. Additional enforcement procedures based in statute
(i.e., the “pay-as-you-go” requirement and limits on discretionary spending) effectively
expired at the end of FY2002, and Congress and the President have not agreed on whether
to renew them. Although it is true that more attention is focused on tax expenditures than
in the past, they are still seen by many as “hidden” expenditures. A disadvantage of tax
expenditures is that since they are not acted upon in the normal budgetary process, they
are able to grow in revenue size and are not subject to periodic review. The Joint
Committee on Taxation estimated that the revenue cost over the five fiscal years of 2007-
2011 will be $8.9 billion for those who use the additional standard deductions available
to the elderly and blind.

6 The question became which handicaps to recognize and if the tax benefit should be scaled (i.e.,
do you provide the same level of benefit for a taxpayer that has lost one leg as a taxpayer that has
lost both arms or all limbs?). At what point do you provide a tax benefit for those with hearing
loss, etc.?