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Betsy DeVos doesn’t get why Special Olympics matter

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defends deep budget cuts to programs including Special Olympics while urging Congress to spend more on charter schools
USA Today

Eunice Kennedy Shriver has been gone for nearly 10 years, but this week, in the face of an appalling lack of understanding from the Trump White House about the national value of inspiration and courage, she just might be more powerful than she has ever been.

The Trump administration has made a mistake for the ages by completely eliminating funding for Special Olympics, $18 million in all – about the cost of five of President Donald Trump’s golf trips to Mar-a-Lago. It has defunded the most visible and recognizable symbol of inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities not just in this country, but around the world.

Undaunted amid the furor over her decision, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos doubled down Wednesday. “The Special Olympics is not a federal program,” she said in a statement. “It’s a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission. Because of its important work, it is able to raise more than $100 million every year. There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

Let’s take DeVos at her word. Let’s hope that outrage will turn into donations. And let’s hope that Special Olympics will more than make up for what it has lost to continue to carry on its vital mission.

The best result in this chaos of her own making would be for DeVos to rethink her budget and reinstate Special Olympics funding, or for Trump to realize how horrible this looks and right this wrong.

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But that would require them to understand something they likely cannot grasp: how attached Americans have become to Shriver’s magnificent idea of giving those with intellectual disabilities the chance to train and compete in sports, while at the same time teaching everyone else about the fight against intolerance, exclusion and bullying.

This isn’t a blue state or a red state issue. This isn’t about politics. It’s about the remarkable message of acceptance that Special Olympics carries around the world, including at the just-completed World Games in Abu Dhabi.

You know who would have taken Trump and DeVos to task on this point better than anyone else? Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

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Fueled by a fierce anger over the way those with intellectual disabilities were hidden away by the rest of society, and inspired by the struggles and challenges of her older sister Rosemary, Shriver founded Special Olympics in 1968.

The organization has grown into one of the great success stories of our times. Special Olympics supports more than 5 million athletes, 1 million coaches and volunteers and more than 100,000 competitions each year in more than 170 countries. Earlier this month, the 2019 World Games, televised by ESPN, brought together 7,500 athletes from 195 nations for a week of competition.

I was very fortunate to get to know Shriver and spend time with her over the course of a decade or so in Washington, D.C. I’ll never forget sitting next to her at a Special Olympics tennis match on the campus of George Washington University about 30 years ago.

When the competitors began making uncharacteristic mistakes, she shifted in her chair. She was not happy.

“They are better than this,” she said to me, shaking her head. “I know the crowd is sympathetic, but these athletes are better than they’re playing, and I wish the people here could see that.”

She never looked at Special Olympians as those to be pitied, and well understood the importance of what the spectators were seeing that night. Then, as now, it was all about the message that was being sent by these valiant athletes to the rest of us. There is no one who understood that better than Shriver. Against her, even now, Trump and DeVos don’t stand a chance.

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