On Betsy DeVos and the Special Olympics

The controversy around public funding for the Special Olympics this week points to several critical enduring themes in contemporary cultural discourse, most of which have been glossed over in the commentary I have seen.

Some of the critical points that I – as a currently-non-disabled person who has long tried, personally and professionally, to be an ally in disability rights and inclusion – identify —

1) The desire by the current administration to defund the Special Olympics is rooted in the grand vision of privatization.

The goal of privatization – in the global scope of hegemonic neoliberalism – is wresting all matters of significant societal concern from the public sector (which is perpetually at risk of democratic engagement for the good of all) into the private sector, whether that is corporate or not-for-profit. Privatization renders all matters of life susceptible to control by corporate wealth.

In the current climate, every move made in the public sector toward privatization – a process explicitly in place since the Reagan administration and in motion in certain sectors since well before – is a capitulation of public interest to private corporate accumulation of wealth and control.

The current administration is more shameless and bold in this process, but the process reflects an ongoing bipartisan agenda in which government is co-opted for private interests rather than serving the public good.

2) The Special Olympics has long been controversial in disability circles because it is easily cornered into the narrative of participating in and selling itself through an appeal to pity from non-currently-disabled people and to segregation of people with intellectual disabilities.

That line of critique is usefully and splendidly summarized here – https://bit.ly/2uvEdG6 (with a hat tip to my friend Jacob Bouma-Sims for ready reference on the link).

(* and if I could create a foot-stomping .gif here, I would do so with an image of stamping out the word “Special” as a euphemism for “disability” – an argument related to that below in 5) )

3) It is worth noting that there is not a monolithic disability voice about Special Olympics (as there is not in any community) – so that there are those who appreciate all of the opportunities and the sense of community that it offers. In a world where justice is often elusive, we do give thanks for moments of material mercy that make an immediate positive difference in the lives of some people.

4) Regardless of one’s opinion about the Special Olympics itself, let us be clear that the impulse for defunding Special Olympics comes from 1) not 2) – and that the neoliberal influence upon our cultural, political, and economic relationships is unredemptively harmful to the well-being of us all (including that tiny percentage of people whose bank accounts flourish but souls atrophy under such a regime)

5) regardless of one’s opinion about the organization itself, the Special Olympics folks produced a useful bit of research back in 2003. Their multinational study found that the biggest barrier to the full inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in society in the U.S. and around the globe is . . . wait for it . . . the negative, stereotyping attitudes of people WITHOUT intellectual disabilities in the U.S. and around the globe.

You got that, right? The biggest barrier to inclusion is our bigotry.

Rather than seeing our diversity as a great gift (God’s gift, for those of us of faith), we stigmatize people across a violently-enforced hegemonic norm of cultural power.

People who hear me preach (in one forum or another) recognize this as a recurring theme in my work – and one that is no less true here than in matters of race, economic status, sexual orientation, or any other form of discrimination.

Let us devote ourselves to understanding the complexities, to standing up to the forces that would reduce all forms of human and ecosystem interaction to commodification, and to creating a world that revels in and uplifts our rich human and ecological diversity as a gift (God’s gift) and the source of our most enduring strength and joy.