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A Special Olympics basketball clinic in Charlotte, N.C. in January 2019. AP Photo/Chuck Burton

The Trump administration’s attempts to defund the Special Olympics, explained

The federal government has long covered about a tenth of the Special Olympics’ budget. This nonprofit that gives athletes with intellectual disabilities a chance to train and compete in a wide variety of sports gets most of the rest of its funding from charitable donations from foundations, corporations and individuals. It spent a total of roughly US$150 million in 2017, the most recent year for which information is available, with the federal government’s portion totaling $15.5 million.

President Donald Trump’s first three proposed budgets, for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, would have broken that formula. Instead of the usual arrangement, his first three draft spending plans called for giving nothing at all to the Special Olympics.

But for the upcoming fiscal year, the organization anticipates getting $17.6 million from Uncle Sam. That’s because Congress ignored the president’s proposed budgets and provided uninterrupted funding for the Special Olympics during the administration’s first two years. Now, Trump has disavowed his own proposed cuts.

Over the past several years, I have gained an increasing understanding of and appreciation for the Special Olympics through collaboration between the organization and American University, where I am a professor and direct the Institute on Disability and Public Policy.

Based on my scholarship about disability policies around the world, I believe that stripping the program of federal funding would undercut the organization’s work: empowering people with intellectual disabilities by reducing the stigma and discrimination against them though their participation in sports.

The Special Olympics

This script changed abruptly when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told the House Appropriations Committee in late March about proposed educational cuts topping $7 billion, including ending all U.S. funding for the Special Olympics in the 2020 fiscal year.

Amid the bipartisan uproar over DeVos’ proposed cuts, Trump changed his mind. He declared he personally opposed this line item from his own budget proposal. There’s a good reason for the fuss this budget debate stirred up: No other organization does what the Special Olympics does.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a fierce defender of the rights of people with intellectual disabilities, founded the Special Olympics more than 50 years ago. Unlike the Olympics, which primarily holds global sports events every other year, the Special Olympics holds at least one competition somewhere in the world almost every day. Its year-round training and sports competitions serve over 5.7 million athletes in 174 countries worldwide, from Argentina to Zambia.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos refused to give any details about federal funding for the Special Olympics when she responded to questions from Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.

The role of philanthropy

During her congressional testimony, DeVos did praise the Special Olympics. As she pointed out, she does support the organization with some of the salary that she – a billionaire – has waived.

But she also said at first that the philanthropic support the organization gets renders federal funding for the Special Olympics unnecessary. “The Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector, as well,” she told Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat.

DeVos reversed course in a subsequent statement. “I am pleased and grateful the President and I see eye-to-eye on this issue and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant,” she said. “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”

Her staff now say they sought to restore the funds before the proposed cuts became contentious, and they blame efforts to get rid of the funds on the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency that administers federal spending.

DeVos was wrong when she initially said that the Special Olympics didn’t need federal funding because charity provides the money it needs. Federal funding covers a very specific Special Olympics initiative, its Unified Champion Schools program. The program uses sports as a foundation to build a climate of acceptance by having children with and without disabilities play sports together in schools. This program promotes social inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities across the country.

While philanthropic support does contribute to the Champion Schools program, especially at the local level, federal funding allows the headquarters organization to administer and oversee the program.

What might have happened without the media attention brought about by DeVos’ confrontations with lawmakers? It looks likely that Congress would have ignored this proposed cut for a third time.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee that manages this segment of the budget, says he is a strong supporter of the Special Olympics. He has promised to protect its funding.

What’s more, this is hardly the only line item in Trump’s draft budgets Congress has been ignoring. Nor is this the first time lawmakers have pushed back against many White House spending priorities.

Abdicating global leadership

This proposed cut is only one of many the Trump administration has seemed to make people with disabilities a low priority. But to be sure, it’s not the first time these concerns have arisen. In 2013, for example, a budgetary impasse forced an estimated $600 million reduction in special ed spending as part of the sequestration process.

It’s also not the first time a White House has seemed insensitive about athletes with intellectual disabilities. President Barack Obama once inappropriately joked about being bad at bowling by comparing himself to Special Olympics contenders. The difference between what happened next is stark.

Obama immediately apologized personally to Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver.

In contrast, after the administration tried to cut the budget, Trump blamed his underlings and tried to take credit for rescuing the Special Olympics funding that his own team jeopardized.

Current U.S. policies appear to be at odds with the nation’s historic role as a global leader on disability rights. The United States was among the first countries in the world to pass legislation to support the multifaceted rights of people with disabilities, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, in 1990.

And American disability policies laid the foundation for and inspired the creation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a global treaty that 172 countries have ratified so far. The Obama administration signed the treaty but the Senate has not ratified it.

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