The Trump Administration’s Ableist Cuts to the Special Olympics

As has been often said of this administration, sometimes the cruelty is the point. It was announced this week that Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education is eliminating its $18 million budget allocation for the Special Olympics, part of $7 billion in proposed spending cuts to the nation’s education system. When questioned about this barbaric decision, DeVos primly told a house subcommittee, “We had to make some difficult decisions.”

At this hearing, with her trademark ignorance, DeVos couldn’t provide the number of children who would be affected by the cutting of the Special Olympics (it’s 272,000). In addition, more than 5 million children worldwide are involved with Special Olympic programs, and they would all be affected by this decision.

It is impossible to look at this heartless decision as disconnected from Trump’s ableism. He has notoriously mocked those with disabilities and uses the word “retarded” as a slur. It has been argued, compellingly and presciently, by Imani Barbarin that “Ableism Is the Go-To Disguise for White Supremacy.” She writes, “Agents of white supremacy count on society’s existing behaviors toward the mentally ill—and by extension, all disabled people—to aid and abet their agenda without anyone taking a closer look.”

And it’s more than just Trump’s infamous mocking of the disabled—from reporter Serge Kovaleski to John McCain’s inability to lift his arms. Between his attacks on the Affordable Care Act and his claims that white-supremacist mass shooters are “mentally ill,” instead of motivated by the very philosophy that animates this administration, his worldview is comparable to that of historical white nationalists. See this New York Timesop-ed from September 2017, “The Nazis’ First Victims Were the Disabled.”

Betsy DeVos—whose brother is Blackwater militia founder and alt-right hero Erik Prince and whose husband’s family are the billionaire Christian Dominionists who bankroll the think tanks of the far right—is merely doing her part in what is a far broader assault.

Eighteen million dollars is nothing to the federal government—it’s just six golf trips to Mar-A-Lago. The cut was demanded because, again, the cruelty is the point. And while the Special Olympics is on the chopping block, the DeVos budget grants 60 million dollars for “charter schools.”

People have taken to Twitter to express opposition to this callous cut. Two-time world champion US Soccer legend and ESPN personality Julie Foudytweeted, “Please read this @BetsyDeVos. God, you need to only spend .01 minute watching these @SpecialOlympics athletes perform to understand the power of this program.”

Similarly, Rachel Nichols also of ESPN tweeted, “the Special Olympics are aptly named; truly one of the most special things we get to cover at ESPN.” What is needed now though are not pleas but bracing truth. To quote Frederick Douglass, “a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.” That was provided, ever so sharply, by a 500 pound professional wrestler who goes by the name of the Big Show and does work with the Special Olympics. This is what he said in righteously angry online rant: “The message she’s sending is that people with special needs, children with special needs, aren’t important enough to be part of society.”

As for DeVos, she actually felt the backlash to this horrific decision, and put out a statement to “set the record straight.” It could go down in history as the worst “set the record straight” proclamation in history. She wrote:

The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission. Because of its important work, it is able to raise more than $100 million every year. There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.

That’s her correcting the record, saying that the media has been lying and the real agenda… is to cut the special Olympics. This isn’t just run-of-the-mill ordinary Trumpland evil. This is crude, cartoonish evil by a cartoonishly evil public figure from a cartoonishly evil family. This is about something far bigger than the Special Olympics. It’s about how those in the White House view the most vulnerable in our society. The cruelty is the point.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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