Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently proposed cutting all federal funding for Special Olympics, the international athletic program for people with developmental disabilities. Although the Trump administration has now backed off this plan, DeVos argued correctly that Special Olympics is one of the best-funded programs for people with disabilities in the private sector.
Good public policy suggests that government dollars and private funding generally should not overlap, so that they can better meet the widest range of needs.
As a person with a disability who has followed disability issues my entire adult life, I think DeVos actually was right, but for all the wrong reasons. Special Olympics, however beloved, are outdated.
These funds should be redirected toward more cutting-edge programs that lead to greater autonomy and self-direction for people with disabilities rather than to sprinters and shot putters.
People with disabilities, including those with intellectual disabilities, have been marginalized by the mainstream throughout history. The Kennedy family, inspired by daughter Rosemary Kennedy, founded Special Olympics with the noble goal of promoting esteem and meaning for those with such disabilities.
But that was some 50 years ago, and the world is much different for people with disabilities today. The Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act have changed our standards for inclusion. Universal design and assistive technology have struck down many of the barriers that made a separate program seem like the best option for providing a needed path to self-esteem.
Today, we can meet a higher standard for our peers with disabilities, one that includes a more organic integration into society and greater self-determination for everyone. Even persons with profound limitations can recognize condescension and insincerity when directed toward them. We can move beyond this.
The politics of advocacy for people with developmental disabilities has always had a discomforting characteristic: Most advocates are acting on behalf of those with disabilities. Seldom are the advocates people with disabilities themselves. However well-intended, this is also paternalistic. And even when people with intellectual disabilities are given the opportunity to share their preferences and desires, there may be real concerns about how reasoned and informed those preferences are.
People who through no fault of their own can’t imagine an alternative scenario can hardly be blamed for endorsing the status quo.
We should look at shifting public funds toward programs like Think College, an initiative by the Institute of Community Inclusion in Boston. Think College sets a high bar, asking: Why not send people with intellectual disabilities to college right after high school like everyone else?
At first, this may seem counter-intuitive, and it wouldn’t work on every campus. But imagine this: A college has a mission promoting service and inclusion (the precise college population most likely to volunteer for Special Olympics or its next generation, Best Buddies), and perhaps a few more empty beds in dormitories than it might prefer. Young people with intellectual disabilities who had been making legitimate progress toward living independently find themselves isolated and feeling left out when their nondisabled peers leave for college.
Why shouldn’t those young people continue with everyone else their age? Living in a dormitory makes an excellent stepping stone toward adulthood (whether or not one has a disability), and Think College puts together two groups that can gain from each other.
Traditional college students learn from sharing their lives with people who may need a caring eye and will become more tolerant and understanding of cultural differences. Students with disabilities have an intermediate step toward independence, a transition everyone will need to make some day.
Workshops on independent living skills led by traditional college students could provide additional opportunities for coaching and learning, respectively.
This is exactly the sort of initiative the Department of Education should be backing, helping develop new models that benefit all students. The department could lead the way in developing innovative curricula as well as standardization and benchmarking of programs. Just a semester or two living on a college campus can change a life much more than an athletic competition with a coach who goes home at the end of the day.
College is a special time in the development of the American adult, and after four years our world is a little better. Lifelong friendships are made. Students who shared their space with students needing additional support can cite their experience mentoring peers in meaningful ways to employers, and maybe those with intellectual disabilities are better prepared to live and work away from their childhood home, possibly with a best friend made at college. Now that would be a best buddy.
Andy Christensen, of Northfield, is an educational consultant.