The history of special education in the U.S. is a complicated series of strategic battles for civil rights for a uniquely vulnerable population. When defining special education, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — the current law in place to guarantee rights to individuals with disabilities — includes 13 disabilities. These disabilities are autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairments, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, and “specific learning disability.” A specific learning disability impacts a student’s ability in “reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning and math” computation, according to understood.org.
IDEA was reauthorized by the federal government in 1997 and, in 2004, No Child Left Behind further expanded schools’ ability to provide transitional resources for students with disabilities and Individual Transition Plans (ITP). ITPs help transition students with disabilities into a job placement. The underlying principle of IDEA is that students must be placed in the “least restrictive environment.” Programs like the Special Olympics allow for students in special education to be given more typical educational experiences.
On March 27, the current U.S. Department of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, defended a proposal to cut all government funding allocated within the Education budget for the Special Olympics. DeVos has been in this role for nearly two years under the Trump administration and has been a large proponent for other controversial school policies, specifically when she was advocating for charter schools. DeVos also made headlines when she moved to narrow the definition of sexual assault, reducing liability from higher education institutions and increasing the burden of proof necessary for formal complaint, according to the New York Times.
Recently, DeVos has called for a $17.6 million cut to special education, specifically targeting the Special Olympics. On the Special Olympics website, they released an article in response to the proposed budget cuts. The article reads, “Special Olympics ends bullying and discrimination of people with intellectual disabilities — often the most marginalized people in society . . . Special Olympics recognizes the progress that has been made around the country in eliminating the stigma, stereotypes, isolation, and discrimination that people with intellectual disabilities face — most importantly around access to sport, health, and education opportunities and services.”
Currently, the Department of Education receives $68 billion yearly. $17.6 million of this budget was allotted to the Special Olympics while the rest was covered by private sector donations in 2018. The Department of Education began giving money to the Special Olympics organization in 2008. The program has grown to servicing over 3 million people with disabilities in the Special Olympics, and 272,000 that participate in sports across 6,500 Unified Champion Schools — public schools who receive funding for these programs. By the end of 2019, Special Olympics plans to have 7,500 Unified Champion Schools — 8,500 by 2020. DeVos said to Capitol Hill that “given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Poets have been discussing the funding cuts supported by DeVos. Second-year Maggie Keller said that “cutting funding for the Special Olympics takes away countless opportunities for individuals with disabilities to express themselves and show the world how capable they are of achieving greatness. I will never forget seeing the look on my sisters face when she made it down the ski slopes or finally hit the ball in a game of baseball. Taking this away would would be erasing opportunities.”
Outside of the White House on March 28, Trump told reporters, “The Special Olympics will be funded, I just told my people . . . I want to fund the Special Olympics, and I just authorized funding of the Special Olympics.” DeVos followed Trump’s comments, and said, “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.”