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DeVos’ proposal to defund Special Olympics runs contrary to American values

(Clara Vamvulescu/Daily Bruin)

By Elizabeth Hanczor

April 4, 2019 10:46 pm

If you don’t already think Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos crossed the line, here’s news: She’s coming after students with disabilities, too.

DeVos proposed cutting millions of dollars of funding last week from the 2020 education budget. To the public’s surprise, the proposal would eliminate $17.6 million from the Special Olympics and more than $20 million from programs that help blind and hard of hearing students.

Twitter quickly erupted with bitter disdain for the proposal and several politicians from both sides of the aisle shared their distaste for these cuts, including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. While DeVos and President Donald Trump tried to quickly alter their proposal in the wake of negative press, we should remember this is not the first time students with disabilities have been threatened by the current administration’s education policies.

In 2017, for example, DeVos rescinded 72 guidance documents from the Office of Special Education Programs and the Rehabilitation Services Administration that help outline the civil rights of people with intellectual disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975 to mandate public education and tailored services to students with disabilities. Of course, it is natural for new administrations to modify existing regulations, but this was a new extreme.

The recent move to defund special education at the primary level and empowering programs like the Special Olympics may discourage and prevent families and young students from pursuing higher educational opportunities. Students with and without disabilities should be entitled to the same, unthreatened path toward a college degree. Belittling and discounting the necessary encouragement and instruction provided by the Special Olympics and other programs for students with intellectual disabilities promote a false norm of there being an even playing field on impressionable minds.

Coupling empowering programs and academic inclusion is important for students with disabilities. Funding for classroom-specific programs provides the necessary resources for specialized attention to students’ unique classroom needs.

On the other hand, the Special Olympics addresses the nonacademic, more personal needs of children with disabilities and aims to help them gain courage through athletic competition.

These two facets of special education physically aid students and promote a world of intellectual diversity.

We’ve seen this at UCLA. Pathway at UCLA Extension is a higher education program for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. The overarching goal of the program is to provide students with a pathway toward an independent lifestyle by offering educational, social and vocational experiences under the supervision of trained academic advisors.

Many students in the Pathway program also participate in the Special Olympics at UCLA sporting events, which was established more than 30 years ago. In the program, students with and without disabilities play basketball and soccer on intellectually integrated teams.

But DeVos’ proposed cuts – and the trend of divestment in the community – threaten to harm these programs. While Special Olympics at UCLA is funded by the Community Service Commission, federal cuts may take a toll on UCLA Extension programs and the school community at large.

Kristienne Edrosolan, a fourth-year human biology and society student and president of Special Olympics at UCLA, said it isn’t just about the money.

“The purpose of Special Olympics and them partnering with the Department of Education is to promote a norm of social inclusion from a very young age,” Edrosolan said. “It is important that the government supports what we value as a country. By funding this program and by offering those resources, we are saying that inclusion and accessibility in our schools is important.”

Defunding Special Olympics, the organization that recognizes and promotes Special Olympics at UCLA, can hurt the program’s reach to the community and abroad. As a result, fewer UCLA students may get involved as mentors in Special Olympics at UCLA and fewer local students with disabilities would be able to find programs like Pathway.

“With our students who require more individualized support, any sort of cut would affect them long term,” said Wendy Abarca, Pathway’s student alumni and outreach coordinator.

Cutting support would only fuel the social exclusion students with intellectual disabilities face. Special education funding teaches students with and without disabilities how to appreciate intellectual diversity. Toying with this academic solidarity is cruel.

We need to be eliminating obstructions to primary special education that could prevent students from finding these higher academic institutions and programs, not building them.

The private fundraising capabilities of the Special Olympics might seem to rule out the need for federal government funding. But we have to consider the message that disinvestment – or even the prospect of it – sends: Students with intellectual disabilities aren’t worth the time and money of the U.S. government.

Money is tricky. But a child’s right to be educated is not. What our country invests in should mirror the values we hold – the values that don’t fall under party lines. Budget cuts like these don’t just affect lower-level education, but serve as yet another obstacle students with disabilities face on their journey to higher education and independence.

That, however, is something DeVos is fine adding to her list of malicious achievements.

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Elizabeth Hanczor
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