The Special Olympics made national headlines when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced a budget proposal last month that included cutting all federal funding for the Special Olympics, nearly $18 million.
Only days before, I had met with Gov. Gavin Newsom and other leaders in the state Legislature to advocate for $3 million in funding for California Special Olympics athletes and programs. So to say that I was upset by this proposal would be an understatement.
After receiving massive public backlash, the federal administration thankfully reversed this proposal. However, these events created the perfect opportunity to highlight how the Special Olympics improve the quality of life for thousands of individuals both on and off the field.
Special Olympics Northern California and Special Olympics Southern California provide year-round sports training, competition opportunities and medical assistance to athletes and their families in California’s public schools and community sports programs at absolutely no cost to the nearly 60,000 athlete participants. Through sports, these athletes become more independent, build self-esteem, live healthier lives and are able to experience a community where they are accepted and celebrated.
As someone who has a sister with Down syndrome, I can sympathize with the stares and treatment that individuals in the Intellectual and Developmental Disability (I/DD) community too often receive.
Many years ago, my wife and I took a trip to the mall with my sister, Shari. As we were walking, I noticed a group of young people staring at Shari and whispering.
As any family member would, I felt upset and protective over my sister. I wondered what they were saying and was afraid that my sister noticed. However, Shari turned to my wife and me and said: “I think they like my dress.” That forever changed my perspective.
Having someone in your life who is a member of the I/DD community is a blessing. You begin to see how we are all similar, instead of how we are different. Students in nearly 1,400 Californian schools are able to experience this through the Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools Program.
This program fosters and focuses on inclusion, bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities through sports to learn with, and from, each other. Eighty-four percent of students without disabilities who participated in this program indicated that it was a positive turning point in their lives.
This month, Special Olympics athletes joined me on the Assembly floor to recognize Special Olympics Day in California and help me continue to advocate for program funding. We all benefit from a more inclusive world, and that is what the Special Olympics are working to create.
To learn more about Special Olympics Northern California, its programs or how to become a volunteer, visit sonc.org.