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Trump Reverses Education Secretary DeVos' Plans To Cut Funding For Special Olympics


You might have noticed this week that one of the most noncontroversial organizations in the country was at the center of some intense fighting after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirmed there were plans to cut funding to the Special Olympics. The blowback was so fierce that, on Thursday, President Trump reversed his education secretary.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've been to the Special Olympics; I think it's incredible. And I just authorized a funding. I heard about it this morning. I have overridden my people. We're funding the Special Olympics.

CHANG: NPR correspondent Joseph Shapiro is here to provide some context for us. Hey, Joe.


CHANG: So I'm guessing this didn't go exactly the way the Trump administration expected.

SHAPIRO: No. The Trump administration ended up giving their critics a free kick, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Special Olympics is a pretty popular American institution. And the proposed cuts gave critics a chance to say, look at this administration's cruel budget. It's taking away programs for kids with intellectual disabilities.

CHANG: I mean, how much money is even at stake here? How much are we talking?

SHAPIRO: Not very much. Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, is trying to cut her department's budget by 10 percent - that's $7 billion. But the Special Olympics program in schools - it's a tiny, tiny part of that - $17.6 million. So by creating a controversy over Special Olympics, the Trump administration just let its critics note these much greater or much more significant cuts to programs for people with disabilities.

CHANG: What sorts of cuts?

SHAPIRO: Critics say there are potentially billions, even tens of billions of dollars of cuts to Social Security disability programs and Medicaid. Plus, the Trump administration's decision this week that it wants the entire Affordable Care Act, every provision, struck down in court - that law says private insurers can't deny health insurance to someone with a pre-existing medical condition.

CHANG: Right.

SHAPIRO: And that's sort of the definition of being disabled; you have a preexisting condition.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And Obamacare ended annual and lifetime limits on how much care people get. These are things that can determine, do people get the health care they need, or even where they live - in a nursing home, in their own home. The groups that represent people with disabilities, they don't always speak in one voice. There's so many different disabilities - intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, blind people, deaf people. But by the end of this week, these groups have come together with a more unified voice to attack the cuts to their programs, and it all started with this response to the attempt to cut Special Olympics.

CHANG: Was there ever a real chance that Congress was going to go along with these cuts to the Special Olympics, anyway?

SHAPIRO: No, almost certainly not.

CHANG: Just too politically unpalatable?

SHAPIRO: Right, right. And by the way, DeVos' point is that Special Olympics gets most of its money from private donations and that government shouldn't fund it. But this was the third year in a row that Special Olympics got zeroed out of the Education Department's budget. It didn't get through Congress then, and it wasn't going to happen this year.

CHANG: Can you just take a moment to remind us a little bit about the history of the Special Olympics?

SHAPIRO: Sure. Special Olympics was created as one of the first places where people with intellectual disabilities were seen and accepted. Eunice Shriver, the sister of President John Kennedy, she started it. And the first games were held in 1968 - the 50th anniversary was just last July - and, at the time, there weren't a lot of chances for people with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports. Many lived in institutions. Most weren't even allowed to go to school. This was several years before the law that said kids with disabilities had the same right to get an education as anyone else.

But Special Olympics has changed a lot since then. These are now sports activities for children and adults. And there's an emphasis now on what's called unified sports - that's where people with disabilities play on teams with people without disabilities, and the idea is to create inclusion. And that's the focus of the school programs that are supported by the Department of Education funding.

CHANG: That's NPR's Joe Shapiro. Thanks very much, Joe.

SHAPIRO: Thanks. Glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOWFLOWER'S "WOWFLOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.