Government

As Trump administration seeks cuts in Special Olympics funding, athletes and parents react

FILE PHOTO: Ribbons are ready to be awarded to competitors at the spring East Central Iowa Special Olympics spring games at Coe College in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, April 1, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
FILE PHOTO: Ribbons are ready to be awarded to competitors at the spring East Central Iowa Special Olympics spring games at Coe College in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, April 1, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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It took a little encouraging to get Olivia Johnson to run her first race. She loved watching sports of all kinds but was reluctant, as a third-grader with autism, to try sports herself.

Olivia liked water but couldn’t yet swim. Basketball camp was too noisy. So, when race-time came at her school’s first Special Olympics track-and-field event four years ago, she agreed to try — as long as she could carry her coloring book.

“Once she starting doing it, she lit up!” Amanda Johnson recalled Wednesday, describing her daughter’s pride crossing the finish line, coloring book in hand, and remembering her own tears just last year when Olivia won her first gold medal.

So it was a mix of sadness and anger that consumed Johnson, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, when she heard about the Trump administration’s plan to cut Special Olympics’ $17.6 million federal appropriation.

“It’s the one place where our kids belong, no matter their disability. If somebody falls down, everybody is encouraging them; they’re not laughing,” Johnson said of the Special Olympics program that Olivia, now 12, takes part in at school. “A lot of special education programs are already underfunded. So, to think that our children are being taken from more — that’s a hard thing.”

The work of Special Olympics, a nonprofit that for five decades has provided sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, will continue if its federal appropriation is cut. It has long relied on private philanthropy for the bulk of its funding. And that’s where it should turn to compensate for the $17.6 million that would be denied in the 2020 budget, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said this week in defending her third consecutive attempt to cut its appropriation during a congressional subcommittee.

According to Shawn Ferguson, Special Olympics vice president for Government Affairs, that would be “a major problem.”

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“We would pivot and try to do what we could,” Ferguson said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But in some cases, it would be devastating. It would be a major problem.”

Ferguson voiced optimism that the organization, which has history of bipartisan support, could convince lawmakers to restore its funding, as it has done successfully in the past. Meanwhile, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill railed against the proposed cuts.

What’s in peril is the federal support for Special Olympics’ Unified Champion Schools program, in which students with disabilities team up with students without disabilities in various sports and activities. The goal is not only to expose special-needs students to sports but also to promote social inclusion, acceptance and leadership in all students.

The program is offered in 6,500 schools nationwide — including 463 in Virginia, regarded as a leader in the initiative. That’s a small fraction of the roughly 100,000 schools nationwide, so Special Olympics officials and advocates see enormous opportunity and momentum for expansion.

“Without the federal investment, we’d have to pull out of a lot of the schools we’re currently operating in,” Ferguson said. “That funding is critical to maintaining our operation.”

Laura Allen sees its value through the experience of her two children — Zach, 14, a ninth- grader with autism at W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, Virginia; and Natalie, 13, a seventh-grader who doesn’t have a disability, at Frost Middle School.

Both were introduced to the program at Frost.

Before he got involved in Special Olympics at Frost, Zach didn’t have many friends, his mother explained. But his circle soon expanded after he started going to practice each week with his Special Olympics “buddy.” Natalie served as a “buddy,” too.

“It’s a win-win situation, because they learn so much about acceptance and inclusion,” Laura Allen explained. “They play basketball; they play tennis. And they’re helping their friends score baskets, helping their friends get the tennis ball over the net. Every time they’re out on the court, you see magic happen.”

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Much like Johnson, Allen was shaken by this week’s revelation that the program’s funding was in jeopardy. And she vowed to do what she can to ensure it has a place in Fairfax County. “It has been life-changing for my family,” she said.

As an aspiring teacher in college, Kevin Crenshaw studied the research on how inclusion improved the quality of life and outcomes for youngsters with special needs. The findings made intuitive sense, as well, having grown up with a younger brother with autism.

But he didn’t grasp the full impact until he went to work at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, where he teaches students with intellectual disabilities and autism and coaches soccer, basketball and track and field through the school’s Special Olympics unified sport program.

For starters, it gives special-needs students the chance to wear the school’s colors, blue and gold, with pride. Though it may sound simple, showing school pride has great meaning to many of his students, he explained, because one of the highlights in their life is being at school. Moreover, the program helps them learn the fundamentals of a sport and offers a chance to interact with their peers.

In Crenshaw’s view, the peers, or “buddies,” benefit just as much if not more.

“They may have limited or no experience with disabilities, but in being on a team together, they’re getting a better understanding,” said Crenshaw, 29. “What’s cool is the interactions outside of sports, when they see each other in the hallways. They become genuine friends; it’s not forced or contrived. It increases awareness and acceptance of all.”

In the case of Carla Marie Simon, 31, teaming up with mentors through Special Olympics more than a decade ago transformed her life. And she sprang into action the moment she heard about the proposed budget cuts on social media, creating two videos about her own experience and posting them on the Facebook page of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who pressed DeVos on the budget cuts’ impact during the House subcommittee hearing. Simon’s goal is “to reach people who think we’re not important.”

“I’m not for it,” declared Simon, who has high-functioning autism and epilepsy, of the budget cuts “You wouldn’t believe how much [Special Olympics] has changed my life.”

In a telephone interview from her Arizona home, Simon recounted her first Special Olympics event — a 50-meter dash in 2007 — that launched her journey toward better health (she has lost 48 pounds), greater confidence and independence. She joined a unified running club and, spurred on by Special Olympics mentors, steadily increased her distances to 5Ks, half-marathons and full marathons.

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“Nobody sees my disabilities when I’m am out there running,” said Simon, adding that she hasn’t had a seizure in five or six years, works at Walmart and has learned to speak up for herself.

As of this week, she’s determined to speak up for Special Olympics.

“I want to get my voice and face out there to let people know: I matter, and other athletes matter,” Simon said. “We’re all fighting for each other.”

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