I’m concerned about the $20 Million proposed cut from the State Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the $38 Million proposed cut from family caregiver services, and the $8 Million proposed cut from the already dreadfully underfunded Independent Living. More than $100 million in cuts have been proposed from a range of disability services in this budget, but everyone is talking about Special Olympics.
My family has never supported Special Olympics, and my brother has never participated. I remember as a small child learning that Special Olympics, like Special Schools, were a form of segregation, of Separate and NOT Equal, for people with disabilities. By creating a separate athletic program for disabled children, the mainstream athletic programs didn’t have to be equipped to meet the needs of children requiring accessibility accommodations.
And clearly it isn't so simple. I know lots of people who have participated in Special Olympics and had wonderful experiences as athletes. And, there are other disability athletic programs out there that allow people with disabilities to have their own space for athletic pursuits, free from ableism from others, and that's awesome. But, it is true that we should at the very least give a critical look at Special Olympics.
Special Olympics plays directly into the trope of inspirational disability porn – the many, many stories, usually told in video format, that show how an individual with disabilities overcomes great obstacles to achieve something (often something fairly normal), with the goal of making non-disabled people feel inspired by them, and carrying the underlying message of supporting a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. There are dozens of Special Olympics inspirational videos every year, and they get shared by people who haven’t even thought about how they can create greater accessibility in their communities to allow people with disabilities to fully participate in life. We can be “inspired” by such videos while simultaneously othering the people featured in those videos, assuming they will be in a separate space, and not considering including them in our lives.
Yes, people with disabilities should have access to physical fitness programs that value their strengths, allow them to pursue the goals, and feel seen for their accomplishments. But, SO SHOULD EVERYONE ELSE. This isn’t a “special” need – it is the same need we all have. So why not create athletic program opportunities for everyone to participate in, and make sure they meet the needs of people with disabilities? That would undo some ableism and transform the culture of physical fitness spaces, making them more welcoming for everyone.
There’s a great video about ending the use of the word “Special” for people with disabilities. I recommend you watch it. And, I’ll add to it, that as the little sister of someone who was constantly called “special,” I felt like I could never be special enough to be seen. And, I’d also add that now folks say things like, “Well that’s special” in a way that they used to use the R-word – changing the word doesn’t change the ableism. Let’s address the ableism and create accessibility for everyone.
So, there’s a lot of cuts I’m concerned about. And if you want to stand in solidarity with people with disabilities, I suggest you care about some of those cuts, and not just keep highlighting Special Olympics. You can learn more in the Sibling Leadership Network’s March 2019 policy news here.
Claire Haas is the sister of a man with down syndrome, a musician, coach, and community organizer.