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World Games Updates

After viewing the figure skating finals, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden toured the Healthy Athletes screening venue. Photo by John W. Adkisson

Biden Declares Special Needs Advocacy a "Civil Rights Movement" During Visit to World Games

During a visit to the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, on 12 February, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced a commitment by President Barack Obama’s administration to be a strong advocate of people with disabilities by designing programs to improve the lives of Americans with disabilities and special needs.

"This is a civil rights movement," Biden said. "There's a need to have changes in policy."

The Vice President, who led a Presidential Delegation that included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Olympic figure-skating medalists Scott Hamilton and Michelle Kwan, then demonstrated his point by announcing Kareem Dale, a former member of Obama's campaign in charge of coordinating the vote of disabled Americans, as special assistant to the President for disabilities policy. The appointment, made in front of a small group of Special Olympics athletes, volunteers and coordinators, marks the first time a U.S. President has had a special assistant focused exclusively on disability policy.

“The commitment that the President and I have to Special Olympics and people with disabilities is deep and abiding. And we are backing up those words with real action at the White House,” said Biden. “This is our first step to ensure that we have a strong advocate for people with disabilities at the highest levels of our administration.”

Dale, who is partially blind, will have direct access to President Obama and will coordinate the administration’s efforts to see that people with disabilities are on a level playing field with all Americans. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Dale previously served as the National Disability Director for the Obama for America campaign. He also served on the Arts Policy Committee and the Disability Policy Committee for then-Senator Obama.

Biden continued to emphasize that the United States needs policy changes that will ensure Americans with disabilities can get and keep fulfilling jobs without worrying about losing government-funded health insurance or other assistance. Advocates have long complained that programs like Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and Medicare essentially force disabled workers to leave their jobs or prevent them from working so that they can qualify for the medical care they need.

Biden arrived in Idaho in time to watch the final five contenders in the freestyle pairs skating competition, and then, with the help of Kwan, awarded medals to the athletes before a crowd of about 2,500.

"I've been involved with the Special Olympics as a U.S. senator since 1973 when a woman named Eunice Shriver grabbed me and said, 'You're involved,'" Biden told the enthusiastic crowd after awarding the athletes their medals, referring to Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. "I didn't know then how extensive the movement is worldwide."

"I was telling our host as we walked out, this fulfills a dream of mine: To walk out on the ice with Michelle Kwan, and a dream to see such fine athletes," Biden joked.

Biden said he was honored to be at the World Games with more than 2,000 athletes from nearly 100 countries. "What lives in the heart of every one of these young athletes - as my mother would say, lives in every heart - is the bravery, the tenacity, the grit, and determination," Biden said. "I want to tell you how proud I am to be here."

After awarding the medals at figure skating, Biden toured the Healthy Athletes venue on the Boise State University campus, where athletes competing in the World Winter Games received free health screenings by volunteer health care professionals. Biden spent nearly an hour there in close discussions with athletes, volunteers doctors and Special Olympics leaders. When asked what he thought of the Healthy Athletes program, he said, “It’s truly impressive. Our own health care system can learn from what’s happening right here. It’s amazing.”