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Why Children With Disabilities Need Equal Opportunities to Play Sports

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It’s no secret that Betsy DeVos announced her plans to cut funding for Special Olympics in a budget proposal this year. It’s also no secret that Representative Pocan kicked some butt in his rebuttal as to why Special Olympics is key. Shortly after the announcement and press releases, the disability community on Facebook exploded with a number of comments, and I weighed in on my own personal Facebook page.

Education is more than books. It’s life, learning to be kind and understanding differences. Kids with disabilities are a minority. They often don’t get the same experience with sports, no matter how much “kindness” a school or the opposing team shows. One thing Betsy didn’t plan on is having parents choose to say enough is enough. Betsy, if you think we will just sit back, you picked the wrong type of momma.

While my personal feelings were both supported and disagreed with, it was apparent that many people, including those without family members with disabilities, were feeling something about this proposal. My friend used Charity Navigator to find out that although this organization pays their executives and does so generously, it is not paying out nearly what other organizations in similar situations do. In fact, as I read the information myself, it seemed that pay may actually not be as high as it should be for the impact the organization has on both children and adults throughout the world.

That being said, I want to share the reasons I believe we should have Special Olympics and why there should be supportive funding for children who have disabilities. Today, I give you my own little letter to Mrs. DeVos.

Dear Mrs. DeVos,

As a mother to five children, I have the blessing of watching a number of children, including my own, grow through athletics. I remember the first time I coached. I was young, perhaps 14, and working at a summer camp. I watched as children learned and grew through their time together and through instruction. That impacted me. I knew that somehow, someway, I wanted to be involved in shaping children and for me, as a mom, I’m finding sports and coaching to be the best way.

Just yesterday, I coached two lacrosse teams. One, a group of children my own daughter’s age, and although I wished she was there, she was not. These children, ages 5 to 7, began using sticks to start understanding the challenging game of lacrosse. As they practiced the basic fundamental skills, I stood in the warmth of the sun and I smiled when they mastered a new skill. I felt grateful I could be the one to grasp the hand of the child coming in last, urging her to complete her running as I knew she could. I did so with joy in my heart because I am able to watch these children grow emotionally, physically and socially through their practices and games.

I also coached the older girls with more experience. Some I have coached at other sports. Field hockey. Basketball. Soccer. Others are new to me. I am learning them. Their strengths, their weaknesses and their individual personalities that makes our team whole. I watch in awe as I not only have the blessing to teach them but also to learn from them. Patience. Understanding. Compassion. The opportunity to challenge a child, to push them to dream of what they could be in the future, returning to the turf they practiced on as a tot one day as a teen passing and playing in a high school game.

I even had the blessing of watching my middle two — the “not twins” — as they played on a fifth and sixth team together against a seventh and eighth team. It was beautiful. The joy I had watching them was something that a parent feels when they believe that their children are growing into the people they are capable of becoming. You know that moment, when you realize your parenting dreams are fulfilled. I think as parents we witness this each day in the small gifts that our children present to us, but now, having a child with disabilities, I acknowledge it even more and cherish those moments as precious time.

You see, Mrs. DeVos, my youngest daughter can’t participate. She tries, but as a mom of a child with disabilities, there are a few things I consider. First, her well-being. Is the sport one where she will enjoy herself and grow? Second, will this environment be accessible to her?

Athletics are important for more than just physical growth. They boost self-esteem, allow for the development of social and emotional relationships, and allow us to understand and cultivate leadership skills. Sure, we have all seen those “feel good” stories where the team arranges for the child with a disability to play a few minutes in a game their senior year, and that’s amazing — but those children are one in a million, and it’s not enough.

Special Olympics isn’t something my daughter has been involved in yet. Our area has minimal access and opportunities, but I continually look. Special Olympics was something others I knew had experienced and I beamed as children with disabilities told me about winning a medal and feeling good. I had hope that one day my child could cheer or swim or maybe even find an opportunity to ride horses as I did as a child. Special Olympics not only allows children with disabilities to have an athletic outlet, it allows them to have a team, their own team. It allows them to play with their peers and not question if they are “enough.” In Special Olympics, they are all enough.

Many of my friends, even those who have children with disabilities, don’t agree there should be federal funding for the program, but I ask, why then do we fund high school and middle school sports? Is it not the same idea? Is it not a place to grow the future, to give them a physical outlet that helps to foster emotional and social growth? To me it is, and if we are all to be treated equal, free of limitation by race, social status and other differences, I would expect that a disability wouldn’t limit your opportunity to thrive.

Mrs. DeVos, I don’t know you or your personal life and I do know that budgets suck. Most of us all wish money fell from the sky and there were no limits on spending for education and positive programs. Reality is, that isn’t the case. What I will say is before I walked this path, holding the hand of my own daughter with autism, a cut like this may not have meant as much, but as I walked off that field yesterday, I wished more than anything I could coach, not just my children who are typical, but my daughter with a disability, too. While I know she may never play on that same turf I hope for my little athletes to play on, I hope there is some place where she can play, grow and learn and be cherished.

Originally published: August 7, 2019
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