I typically avoid discussing politics in my writing. This isn’t to say that I’m not a political person with strong beliefs, but sports has always been my escape from the rest of the world. I like to keep it that way.
But this week, the sports world was invaded by the real world in what feels like the cruelest way imaginable, and I had no choice but to write about it. Because really, this isn’t even about politics. It goes beyond politics: it’s about humanity.
President Trump’s new budget proposes cutting at least $7 billion in federal funding to education programs, including defunding the Special Olympics completely. If the cuts are approved, they will lose nearly $18 million.
Luckily, it is unlikely that the budget is approved. Katelyn Burns, federal policy reporter at Rewire.News tweeted yesterday that DeVos proposed these same cuts last year when the GOP was in control of both the House and Senate, and the cuts did not make it through the appropriations process. With the response that these proposed cuts have received this week both from elected officials and the general public, it is unlikely that the provision which would defund these programs will be approved.
Regardless, I want to talk about the Special Olympics and why they are so important. Because the fact that the Special Olympics and programs like it are even at risk of losing their funding is a national embarrassment, and so I am going to turn this into an opportunity to talk about why they matter.
The Special Olympics were founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy, in 1968. Their sister Rosemary was disabled after a lobotomy in her youth, and spent the remainder of her life in an institution. Eunice and Rosemary had grown up playing sports with their family, but there were limited options and few programs for Rosemary after the horrible procedure that ruined her life. After taking over the foundation named for her brother Joseph, who’d died in WWII, Eunice devoted her life to creating and working on various philanthropic endeavors, especially those surrounding special needs and education. The Special Olympics were just one of many incredible movements she spearheaded.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Congress voted to increase spending for the Department of Education’s programs for students with learning disabilities just six months ago. According to the Center, overall, the total spent on education funding would remain the same, but “many important programs that impact students with learning disabilities [would] be increased.” (Link) When asked by the congressional subcommittee on Tuesday if she knew how many children would be affected by the defunding of the Special Olympics, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she did not know.
The answer is 272,000 kids.
The Special Olympics are important for a multitude of reasons, but I’ll give you just a few of the major ones. According to their website, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers without disabilities. The Special Olympics does a lot more than just holding Olympic games; their Unified Champion Schools® program brings the values of the Special Olympics into schools to “create sports, classroom and school climates of acceptance.” In 2017, 5,700 schools and 3.6 million young people participated in inclusive school activities across the United States, and 79% of students who spent time with a student with a disability through the Unified Champion program considered this person to be their friend. On a personal, individual level, the importance of these kinds of experiences is incalculable for everyone involved.
Working with more than five million athletes in 174 countries, the Special Olympics is the largest sports organization in the world for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. In addition to its federal funding from the United States government, it partnered with big corporations, including Bank of America, Coca Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Toyota, and United Airlines. But the fact that it has other sponsorship should not make this administration’s proposed budget cuts acceptable. It is a vile act of uncaring cruelty to neglect the very people we should be lifting up.
Anyone on the global stage has the opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world. And just like athletes in baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and the general Olympics, the athletes in the Special Olympics set an example for everyone who watches them. But the Special Olympics are so much more than that: they represent people who otherwise may not be represented. And they show children around the world with disabilities that they can do everything they dream of; that they are, in a word, special. To defund them is to defund our humanity.
The Special Olympics are the best form of sports competition. They inspire children with disabilities to dream, and they encourage and remind the rest of us to open our hearts and minds and to be more accepting. They are an opportunity to highlight and celebrate people who otherwise may not be, and to make everyone feel included. As Eunice Kennedy Shriver said in her remarks at the inaugural Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968, the Special Olympics were created to give children with disabilities “the chance to play, the chance to compete, and the chance to grow.” (Link) To deprive any child, let alone millions, of that chance, is something we cannot do.
Please considering donating to the Special Olympics
Photo: Special Olympics official Instagram