Important Issues

Important Issues

Special Olympics controversy shows need to help those with disabilities (Opinion)

Teesie Bonk is a Delaware advocate for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Last week, the news that President Donald Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate $17.6 million in funding for Special Olympics rightly drew plenty of outrage, and President Trump quickly walked back that decision.

Over the last few decades, Americans have become very aware of the great work Special Olympics does, helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to realize the joy of achievement and to live better lives. Their work goes beyond the sporting events you know about, and includes promoting social inclusion in 6,500 schools across the country. This second purpose is largely funded by those federal dollars, and stripping them away would have been a blow to inclusion and opportunity.

Here in Delaware, we have a similar situation brewing, and it’s all our own fault. The state of Delaware is choosing to leave tens of millions of federal dollars in the government’s hands.  Delaware’s state government has chronically underfunded disability services for more than a decade. A study completed this year showed that Delaware needs to increase its annual budget for I/DD services by $42.3 million. If the state were to do that, the federal government would chip in $51.3 million in federal matching funds.

That’s what we’re leaving on the table – more than $51 million dollars! Every year! That’s three times the amount that was almost taken away from Special Olympics, and the money would be used in a much more concentrated area – Delaware, as opposed to across the entire country. Look, we get it – there’s a lot of competition for budget dollars. But, as a state, we’re letting down some of our most vulnerable citizens if we allow this to continue to happen.

As advocates, we’re proposing that Delaware close the funding gap over the next three years; that means increasing funding to I/DD programs by $14 million for the coming fiscal year. Last year, the legislature passed the Michael McNesby Act Full Funding for Adults with I/DD Act, and Governor Carney signed it into law, and increased the budget for I/DD services by $4.67 million (with the federal match, it was almost $10 million). That was a significant achievement; the McNesby Act is the first piece of legislation in the country to make the important commitment to full funding programs for adults with I/DD.

The Act is named for my brother, Michael McNesby, who passed away in March 2018. Michael was born in 1960 with Down syndrome. Blessed by parents who chose a life of inclusion for him, a loving family and a wide circle of friends, Michael had a rich and fulfilling life.

Michael was a longtime participant in Special Olympics. It gave him joy, a joy that he in turn was able to share with everyone who came in contact with him.  Michael made Delaware a better place.

It’s time to fulfill the promise of the McNesby Act and fully fund programs for adults with intellectual and learning disabilities. It’s time to stop leaving more than $50 million dollars in what is ostensibly free money in the hands of the federal government.

Imagine the impact. Imagine the lives it would change. Imagine what it would do for Delaware.