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Feighan: Debate over Special Olympics funding cut unveils silver lining

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
More than 9,000 Michigan students participate in Special Olympic Michigan's Unified Champions Schools program which brings together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.

The fallout was fast and furious earlier this spring -- and rightly so -- when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did the unthinkable: proposed cutting Special Olympics funding.

When it comes to tone-deaf political moves, this ranked high. Let's take a program that creates goodwill, inclusion and acceptance across the country and slash $17 million from it. 

Critics went bonkers on social media, questioning how DeVos, the Michigan Republican, could go so low. Even conservatives couldn't defend the move.

"We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget," DeVos told a House subcommittee in late March, trying to defend her decision.

But when the anger finally dissipated -- and funding for the Special Olympics will luckily be left in tact for now -- there was a definite upside to the entire debacle: more attention for the Special Olympics.

Aaron Mills, senior director of marketing and communication for Special Olympics Michigan, said their office was flooded with phone calls and emails supporting the Special Olympics in the week after DeVos's proposed cut.

 "Across social media, our posts reached 20,000 people per day, which is a 33 percent increase over the same week a year ago," said Mills in an email. "We also saw numerous people setting up fundraisers on Facebook, encouraging people to donate to Special Olympics Michigan's cause - which was very humbling to see as well."

DeVos's proposed cut would've affected the Special Olympics Unified Schools program, which brings together those with intellectual disabilities and those without to support inclusion and acceptance.

Michigan has 323 schools that take part in the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program. More than 9,000 kindergarten through 12 students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, participated in its inclusive Unified Champion Schools initiative in 2018, said Mills.

Special Olympics Michigan, which has an $8 million annual budget, gets $300,000 in federal grants, $200,000 of which goes toward its Unified Champion Schools program. That's 40 percent of its budget, said Mills.

"If that funding were to have been cut, it would have been devastating for students all across Michigan," said Mills. "...There would be a lot of discussion as to what our next steps would be. Will some of our school programs need to be cut?"

My first thought when DeVos unveiled her proposed budget is whether she'd ever actually been to a Special Olympics event.

I went to my first one in high school, guiding participants across the finish line for a running event at the Macomb Community College field house. It was like congratulating Olympians who'd trained their entire lives for that moment and won gold. I felt like an incredibly proud parent.

Little did I know at the time that years later I'd have my own daughter with intellectually disability and that she'd participate in Special Olympics. Last year, she walked independently for 25 yards -- chasing my cell phone; you have to do what it takes to motivate kids these days -- and crossed the finished line to loud cheers and applause. This time, I was the proud parent.

Luckily those questions about cutting schools from the Special Olympics Michigan's Unified Champion Schools program don't need to be answered. The message supporters sent earlier this spring was clear. And we need to remember it even when there's no fuss to remind us about what truly matters. 

"Transforming school climates to create a safer and more inclusive world is worth supporting," said Mills.