SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) — Insensitive and a step in the wrong direction.
That is how the CEO of Special Olympics Rhode Island described potential federal budget cuts to the program.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is proposing cutting funding for Special Olympics as part of $7 billion in reductions in 2020. The organization received $17.6 million from the Education Department this year, but DeVos says it should be supported through philanthropy.
Dennis DeJesus, CEO of Special Olympics RI said Rhode Island’s Special Olympics program receives about $150,000 to $175,000 from the federal government. While it’s a small amount compared to the $1.6 million the organization fundraises, DeJesus said the cuts would have a direct impact on programs in local schools.
He said the organization uses federal dollars to support the Unified Champion School Program – which is made up of students with and without intellectual disabilities.
“It’s changing. It’s transforming school cultures,” DeJesus said of the Unified Champion Program. “Right now, every high school with a special education department has a Unified Champions School Program. We’re the only state in the country to say that. But, it would have an impact on the programs we’re trying to bring to our elementary and middle schools.”
The proposed cuts are receiving backlash from both sides of the aisle.
Cranston’s mayor, Republican Allan Fung, tweeted, “As the brother of a Special Olympian and the Mayor of a city that celebrates our Unified athletic teams, I urge the administration to reverse course and do much better than this.”
Congressman David Cicilline said he’s leading a bipartisan effort to preserve Special Olympics funding.
“For nearly 50 years, Special Olympics has helped to remove the stigma and discrimination faced by individuals with intellectual disabilities. Today, more than 4.5 million athletes compete in Special Olympics throughout the world,” Cicilline wrote in a letter that he and his colleagues will send to House appropriations subcommittee. “However, many Americans with intellectual disabilities continue to face significant challenges. Many continue to face restricted access to health services, are three times more likely to face bullying, and often feel isolated socially due to their disabilities. That is why federal support of organizations like Special Olympics is so critical.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, said he too would fight the proposed cuts.