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Betsy DeVos’s threats to the Special Olympics are cruel. But disabled people have bigger problems.

Here’s what we’re most concerned about in the new budget proposal.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during her confirmation hearing.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The news that the Department of Education wants to cut the Special Olympics earmark in its 2020 budget proposal has sparked widespread outrage.

It’s understandable. The 51-year-old Special Olympics program, which offers programming in schools in addition to sports competitions and training for disabled athletes, has become an accessible and familiar face of disability. Though some in the disability community feel it feeds “inspirational” stereotypes and language like “special” demeans disabled athletes, it is widely beloved for the services it provides to the developmental disability community.

But the general public’s hyperfocus on the program is also frustrating; this cut is unlikely to make it into an appropriations bill, as seen when the department tried it last year. Meanwhile, other funding decisions that harm disabled students as well as all children most likely will get enacted, and they deserve broader attention.

The Department of Education is already chipping away at disability rights

The Special Olympics, a private organization, receives funding from a variety of sources, not just the Department of Education. Even if this request made it into the final budget, the organization would be able to recover, a point Education Secretary Betsy DeVos herself made in response to criticism.

Far more important are the 14 percent of all students who currently receive special education services that are already threatened by the Department of Education. At her own confirmation hearing, DeVos seemed surprised to learn of the existence of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which extends key civil rights to disabled students and guarantees them a free appropriate public education. She immediately set about dismantling those rights. In 2017, the Department of Education withdrew 72 separate guidance documents relating to disabled students, citing a Trump administration mandate to eliminate “regulatory burdens.”

With a precedent like that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the newest budget proposal includes a number of hits for disabled students.

The continued promotion of “school choice” via charter schools and voucher programs, a pet cause of the secretary’s, is a particular concern. The proposal funnels $500 million to charter schools alone, an increase of $60 million over last year. But “school choice” carries an extra sting for disabled students who are less likely to be granted places in charter schools, cutting them off from the opportunities advertised by DeVos and her ilk. As for private schools, they don’t always require the important IDEA protections guaranteed to public school students.

There’s also $700 million for “school safety” programs, including expanding access to counseling and improving emergency response plans. This may sound superficially like a good idea. But it also includes “evidence-based practices for improving behavioral outcomes,” which sounds an awful lot like the increased use of surveillance and behavioral profiling in schools recommended in the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety.

This is dangerous, as it tends to criminalize disability without making a meaningful impact on gun violence and other safety issues. Mentally ill and neurodiverse students can pay a high price for such programs, such as being forcibly medicated, arrested, suspended, or even expelled for non-normative behavior. By the way, despite government mandates, many school safety plans exclude disabled students, who may be left vulnerable during active shooter incidents, fires, and other emergencies.

Ignore the petty optics. Here’s what disabled students are in danger of losing.

The proposal would also defund Arts in Education by $29 million and the Department of Education’s contributions to supported employment by $22.5 million. Arts in Education has special programs for low-income and disabled students, while supported employment connects disabled people with jobs, helping them achieve independence. These services are available throughout people’s lives, but supported employment can be particularly empowering when people transition from school to adult life. The agency is also reducing funding to Gallaudet University for deaf students, independent living services, and other programs that support disabled students.

While not directly tied to disability, the federal tax credit offered to those who donate to scholarship programs is also bad news. Providing wealthy Americans with another tax dodge in the guise of “philanthropy,” the tax credit saps meaningful investment in improving our schools. Disabled students need strong public schools to access supports, services, and legal protections.

Trying to cut contributions to a beloved private organization is bad optics and a testimony to the petty cruelties of the Trump administration. It can be criticized on those grounds, but it’s important to engage with the much more pressing, much more real threats to disabled people in the education budget and Trump’s budget more broadly.

The proposed Special Olympics cuts will likely never come to pass — and may in fact be calculated to spark outrage so Republicans can look magnanimous when they decline to put it in the final budget, giving a “win” where one really isn’t deserved. But plenty of others will, and failing to pay attention to them could prove dangerous.

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer who has appeared in publications like the Guardian, Bitch Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Rewire.News, in addition to anthologies including The Feminist Utopia Project and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.

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