Special Olympics had wrapped up its World Games in Abu Dhabi less than a week before U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made her first of two visits to Capitol Hill to explain—and defend—the administration’s fiscal 2020 budget for her department.
Within hours, the 51-year-old organization was caught in a social media-driven firestorm over a proposed elimination of $17.6 million in federal funding for its work.
Highly unlikely from the start, any cuts to Special Olympics appear even more improbable now that President Donald Trump himself has backed off the entire idea.
But the organization’s leaders say they want to use this moment to draw attention to its Unified Champion Schools program.
Organized under the Special Olympics umbrella, that program promotes meaningful connections between students with and without intellectual disabilities, using sports as a catalyst. The Education Department funding is used solely for this purpose, say Special Olympics officials.
A Program Evolution
The shift to more inclusive practices is a demanding challenge for an organization best known for sports competitions that involve only children, youths, and adults with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics was created at a time when people with intellectual disabilities were often stigmatized and isolated, so any positive visibility was celebrated.
But evolving into a program that creates genuine inclusive opportunities is important for all students, said Andrea Cahn, the senior director of the 11-year-old Unified program.
And in many cases, that program might be the primary school-based outlet to encourage social interaction between children and youths with and without intellectual disabilities. Students with intellectual disabilities are far more likely than most other students with disabilities to be educated outside of the general education classroom, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
“I can tell you that when you give students the opportunities to make friends, they will,” Cahn said. “We just want to be seen as the go-to standard for how kids learn to develop and exercise their natural inclusion instincts.”
There are 6,500 Unified Champion Schools across the country. The sports programs are a part of the overall inclusion efforts; in the language of Special Olympics, there are “athletes” (students with intellectual disabilities) and “partners” (students who do not have intellectual disabilities).
About 272,000 students, 112,000 of whom have intellectual disabilities, are involved in a range of sports at Unified Champion schools. Nearly 150,000 are involved in other inclusive clubs at those schools.
The organization wants to grow the program to 7,500 schools by the end of this school year, and 8,500 by the end of the next school year.
The ultimate goal, Cahn said, is to be present in every school in the country. Unified sports activities should be as commonplace as student councils, varsity sports, or recess, she said.
Still, she was not surprised that the Trump administration proposed zeroing out the funding that had been allotted for Unified Champion Schools. The administration had tried the same cut the previous fiscal year, and the fiscal year before that. Each time, the explanation was that Special Olympics could be supported through private donations. Each time, Congress ignored the suggested cuts from the White House and kept the money flowing.
“We were not overly concerned, but we were monitoring the situation,” Cahn said.
But, because the World Games had just ended, many staff members were taking time to travel home and rest when DeVos headed to Capitol Hill to defend the administration’s budget. They were caught a bit flat-footed at first, Cahn said, when an interaction between DeVos and Wisconsin lawmaker Mark Pocan blew up after the Democrat posted a video excerpt of the exchange on Twitter.
The cut would have been just a fraction of the $7 billion proposed to be carved from the Education Department. But many parents of students with disabilities, who have been distrustful of DeVos since her appointment, held up the proposed cut as an example of further insensitivity to their children’s needs.
The Education Department issued a statement explaining its rationale. But Trump, hours after DeVos defended the proposal, said “I have overridden my people. We’re funding the Special Olympics.” (Congress, however, has the final say on whether the program will be funded, and for how much.)
Much of the media coverage of the furor was accompanied by interviews with adult athletes, or images from the recently completed World Games. But more accurate would be to take a look at 2,000-student Kellis High School in Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. Its program, with 80 athletes and 80 partners, has been woven into the fabric of the school, say those who participate.
“It’s a great opportunity to get partners and athletes to not see each other differently,” said Sulivan Danielak-Kirberg, an 18-year-old senior who began the program as an athlete but has transitioned into being a partner. Danielak-Kirberg, who stands at 7-feet-5 inches, competes in golf, volleyball, and basketball.
“My favorite part is getting to know every athlete and seeing everyone win and be happy and compete with their partners,” Danielak-Kirberg said.
Zach Vernon, an 18-year-old senior and athlete, was featured in a 2018 ESPN segment about the school and its Unified sports programs. The ESPN cameras happened to be there when Vernon drained a three-point shot at the buzzer, tying a basketball game between a team made up of Unified sports alumni and a team of current athletes and partners.
Vernon said he loves making new friends and meeting new people through the program. “It’s awesome. It’s great,” he said.
Isabella Aguirre, a 17-year-old senior who is a partner on the Unified dance team, said that she is inspired seeing the progress of the student athletes. “This honestly shaped me into the person I am today,” she said.
Michael Wakeford, a special education teacher and department lead who oversees the Unified sports program at Kellis High, said the early years featured some growing pains as the athletes and the partners figured out their respective roles. All students are expected to lead and participate to the best of their own abilities, which may mean working out some nontraditional ways for the athletes to shine, or encouraging athletes to not defer to partners.
“It’s breaking down those walls,” Wakeford said. “A lot of the time, people fear what they don’t know, and fear what they don’t understand. We do a good job of embracing difference and seeking discomfort, if you will.” For the 2019-20 school year, Kellis High School is planning to create Unified choir and Unified band program, he said.
Erika Guerrero, a special education teacher at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio, is in charge of a Unified Champion Schools program that has brought together 16 athletes with about 50 partners at the 1,600-student school.
While sports and other activities draw the attention and applause, Guerrero said other changes have been equally meaningful. For example, the Unified sports club at Alamo Heights has co-presidents, an athlete and a partner. But in the program’s first year, the co-president who was the partner—the student without disabilities—tended to get the most attention. That has now changed, she said.
“If everybody doesn’t know there’s two presidents, we’re not working in an equal partnership,” Guerrero said. “That was a minor change, but it’s very important that both are seen as leaders.”
Likewise, in the program’s early days, partners were explicitly requested to socialize with athletes in the club. Now, there’s no need to ask, Guerrero said. She runs into partners and athletes hanging out together at fast-food restaurants or at the local farmer’s market, she said.
“There was true friendship, and it did not come from an adult,” Guerrero said. “They don’t feel like they’re doing anything special.”
The Unified sports program has grown to include a Unified theater program and a Unified robotics program with her school, Guerrero said. Many partners tell her the organization is a place where they can relax and be themselves.
“This,” she said, “is their happy place.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Budget Clash Spotlights Special Olympics’ Role in Schools