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Friday, March 20, 2009

"Special" vs. Equal

My 26 year old son counts his life achievements thus far in a way that most people do; his greatest achievements are the days when he felt the warm glow of recognition for a job well done. On his list are the day he walked at two years old, the award he received in fifth grade for his essay in the D.A.R.E. program, when he walked with his high school class at graduation at age 19, the day he received his full diploma at 21, the first time he voted in the Presidential Election, and his medals in track and field and a gold medal in bowling from Special Olympics.

President Obama’s faux pas on the Jay Leno show concerning Special Olympics belies an underlying attitude of society that “special” in this case means “less than” rather than equal. The apology to the Special Olympics organization is appreciated by those of us who support and participate in the organization. The fact that he realized his comment would humiliate the athletes of Special Olympics is true. Unfortunately, his comment is not unusual in this country, where Special Olympics is right now launching a campaign to eliminate the “R” word from our vocabulary. That they must even conduct the campaign to stop people from using a term that has become an extremely common adjective to substitute for “stupid,” tells us all that our society has a long way to go to realize that “special” is not considered equal.

This attitude impacts public policy to a very large extent. In America today there are hundreds of thousands of people with developmental disabilities on waiting lists for services that will provide them with equal footing to live free lives included in our communities. While bailouts abound for financial institutions, and there was a call for the administration to fully fund Medicaid waivers as part of the bailout, action was not taken to do so. States are slashing more funding to these programs because of the lack of revenue. During the last election, Colorado’s Amendment 51, which would have created a small tax to end Colorado’s decades-long waiting lists, failed to pass. Voters weighed in through newspaper commentary saying that this was a “special interest” group, and that charities should be providing these “special” services. Some go as far as to say these services are “welfare.” Sarah Palin even weighed in against Amendment 51 to help the public feel better about their decision.

It is true, Special Olympic basketball players are not allowed in the NBA or even allowed to play high school basketball. Special Olympics exists to fill a huge void in a society that still does not consider people with disabilities as equals. But it is time for America, starting with our President, to realize that the day we consider the accomplishments of a person with a disability, who might have a lower score in a game, to be equal to someone with a full range of physical and intellectual abilities who scores higher, is the day when “special” no longer means “less than.” My hope is that President Obama, who had my son’s vote, will hear these words and act now.