Why We Need to Maintain a Strong Federal Commitment to Special Olympics

Special Olympics athlete has her eyes tested and points to an eye test card.
Special Olympics Mexico athlete Michelle Falcon has her vision tested at Healthy Athletes.

“Athletes of determination” was the perfect theme for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games that took place in Abu Dhabi in March. I cannot think of a better way to describe the extraordinary individuals from 170 countries around the world who participated in the games.

This was one of many Special Olympics events I’ve attended during my time in the Senate, but it was my first World Games. I’ve had the privilege of attending events throughout my home state of Missouri, including the opening of the Training for Life Campus in Jefferson City last year. I strongly believe in the cause of Special Olympics—promoting acceptance and inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities—and the role the federal government must play in ensuring this happens.

The World Games is an opportunity to bring attention to the challenges people with intellectual disabilities face every day and to continue discussions across countries and regions—and among people from different socio-economic backgrounds – about how best to foster inclusion. It also creates an environment of community that was evident from the moment I stepped off the plane and saw Special Olympics advertisements and signage. At the games, every athlete, coach, family member, and supporter was able to take part in supporting a principle of a brighter future for these individuals—one of acceptance and unity.

My time at the World Games reinforced my belief that the U.S. government has an important role to play in supporting Special Olympics and individuals with developmental disabilities. As the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds both the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, I have made it a priority to increase funding for two unique programs that support Special Olympics.

The first, Healthy Athletes, was on display at the World Games. Healthy Athletes programs, which are part of Special Olympics events, provide athletes health services and education in seven different disciplines, including hearing and vision screenings, oral health care, and coping skills. The Healthy Athletes program provides Special Olympics athletes, like any other athlete, access to premier health services. More important, it provides them with access to services they may not have in their everyday life.

We cannot forget that it is difficult for most people to communicate effectively with their doctors. Whether because of embarrassment, inability to effectively describe a medical issue, or fear of doctors, many people face challenges in the health care system. Imagine what this situation could be like for someone with a developmental disability who may have communication challenges in all parts of their lives. Healthy Athletes allows individuals to have specialized screenings in an environment that fosters communication and is tailored to focus on issues that may affect those with developmental disabilities specifically.

In Abu Dhabi, my wife Abby and I witnessed the life-changing effect these routine health screenings can have on an athlete by watching a young female athlete from Samoa get a hearing screening. While we observed her hearing test, the recognition of sounds was evident on her face. Her coach exclaimed that this was the first time she was hearing these sounds. Her family, who was with her in the pavilion, said they did not know that there were hearing aids that would help her. It was amazing to witness that moment but also to know that, had it not been for the Healthy Athletes program, this young woman would continue to go through life without experiencing sound.

While this Samoan athlete’s story is extraordinary, it’s not unusual. There are similar stories for hundreds of U.S. athletes as well. While watching the bocce tournament, I heard a similar story from a family from Connecticut. Their son had also just benefited from a hearing test at the Healthy Athletes pavilion. He was fitted for new hearing aids on site, even though his mother said she had no idea that his other hearing aids were not working effectively.

I wrote the original bill that created Healthy Athletes as a member of the U.S. House 15 years ago and have sponsored legislation extending the program as a member of the Senate. After the first screening at Missouri State University where the Missouri State Games were being held that year, one young man who just got his pair of glasses said, “softball is a lot easier when there’s just one ball.”

These stories highlight the need to ensure people with developmental disabilities have access to programs that affect the health and wellness of Special Olympics athletes around the world. Individuals with intellectual disabilities are at a 40 percent greater risk for health issues, and many health professionals lack the training or experience needed to provide quality care. By increasing investment in Healthy Athletes through the appropriations subcommittee I chair, we’ve been able to provide more than 2 million free health screenings and more than 240,000 health care professionals around the globe with training on how to deal with patients with special needs.

While Healthy Athletes highlights the importance of events like the World Games, my appropriations subcommittee also supports a vital component of inclusion for those with developmental disabilities in our schools. Through funding for the Department of Education, the federal government provides support for Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools. This program promotes inclusion activities through schools by implementing inclusive sports, youth leadership, and whole school engagement for those students with intellectual disabilities as well as those without. This program allows students with developmental disabilities to be part of sports teams and leadership activities along with students without disabilities.

Through sports, Special Olympics helps schools implement comprehensive policies to transform school climates and ensure students with disabilities are fully welcomed in student life. Unified teams also help students and other Special Olympics athletes build confidence and gain leadership skills while others without disabilities learn how to be part of an inclusive environment. Many times, and I know this from watching inclusive sports, you cannot tell the athletes apart. They are part of one team—and team sports bring people together.

Over the four years that I have been chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds both Healthy Athletes and Unified Champion Schools, we have been able to nearly triple funding from $10.1 million to $28.1 million for these vital programs. This has allowed more Special Olympics Games to host Healthy Athletes events and more schools to participate in unified sports and leadership activities.

Special Olympics benefits from being overwhelmingly funded by charitable contributions, but modest investments at the federal level can have life-changing effects on the students, families, and communities they touch. For example, funding through the Department of Education leverages significant private resources and supports programs in approximately 7,000 schools across the United States annually, up from 2,400 schools a few years ago. This helps us learn what interventions work and serves as a model for other schools and districts to support this kind of work without direct federal funding.

This year, for the first time in history, the White House hosted American Special Olympics athletes from the World Games. This event sends an important message that our nation celebrates the achievements of these athletes just as we celebrate all other champions who put in the time and dedication to be the best.

I am grateful to have attended the 2019 World Games to cheer on athletes from around the globe, but especially our American athletes. In particular, I want to congratulate an athlete from Missouri who participated in this year’s games: Colin Garrison. He was the only athlete from the 15,000 Missourians who participate in Special Olympics to be chosen for the Abu Dhabi Games. Like any Olympic athlete, just being part of the games was a huge endeavor that took hard work and perseverance. He raised nearly $4,000 to be able to attend the games, and he came home a medalist. He made Missouri proud. He made America proud.

I am honored to be a vocal advocate for Special Olympics and to continue to fund programs that are fundamental components of the organization. I look forward to seeing generations of Special Olympics athletes live by their oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.) serves as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies

This article was first published in the August issue of Exceptional Parent magazine.

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