15 Feb SOMT Makes Case for Inclusion and Critical Funding on Capitol Hill
Special Olympics Helena Tri-County Wolves athlete and global messenger, Cody Kuhlman, and Special Olympics Montana President and CEO, Bob Norbie, along with other athletes and program leaders from across the United States converged on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 12th, for Special Olympics’ annual “Capitol Hill Day”. This was the 17th year Special Olympics has organized the event, with over 250 delegates representing 44 states and the District of Columbia.
Special Olympics athletes held more than 300 face-to-face meetings with Members of Congress in both the House and Senate. Kuhlman and Norbie had opportunity to meet directly with Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and Congressmen Greg Gianforte. Kuhlman and Norbie discussed expansion of Special Olympics Unified Sports® and Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® programming, and the health care disparities impacting people with intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics athletes, serving as self-advocates, educated lawmakers and their staff about the significant consequences that arise from the stigma and stereotypes faced by people with Intellectual disabilities. They described how that impacts their lives in the areas of sports, health care and education. The goals of Capitol Hill Day were to effectively convey the high impact and cost-effectiveness of Special Olympics’ evidence-based programming that addresses these issues and to secure continued support from legislators.
Cody Kuhlman said, “Being a health messenger is really important to me because I have learned to exercise more often and eat better so I’m healthier all year long, and I get to be a role model for my friends.” Kuhlman further said, “I also support Unified Champion Schools because I learn from other people about respect and inclusion, and make new friends.”
As part of educating lawmakers, Norbie said, “No one is more effective at explaining the needs of people with Intellectual disabilities than our athletes. Cody Kuhlman has done a great job calling attention to the challenges he faces every day to access critical services that enable this vulnerable population every opportunity to be all they can be. Indeed, our athletes are masterful teachers if we pause long enough to listen.”
In nearly 6,500 Unified Champion Schools across the country, 88 of which are in Montana, Special Olympics has trained and mobilized youth leaders and educators to create more inclusive schools by including students with Intellectual disabilities in all aspects of school life. Students with and without Intellectual disabilities are also playing and competing together, on the same team, through Special Olympics Unified Sports. In 2018 through a partnership with the Office of Public Instruction and the Montana High School Association, students with intellectual disabilities participated in the first ever Unified Track Relay during the State High School Track meets in Laurel and Great Falls. These experiences are helping to increase acceptance of all abilities in classrooms across the country, while reducing stigma and bullying.
Special Olympics offers health events where Special Olympics athletes receive free health screenings and health education, and where health professionals are trained and inspired to offer year-round health access to people with Intellectual disabilities in their home communities. Over the past 20 plus years, in the U.S. alone, Special Olympics provided over 900,000 health screenings and trained over 98,000 health care professionals. Globally, Special Olympics has provided more than 2.3 million free health screenings in over 135 countries and trained more than 279,000 health care professionals.
For every dollar provided by U.S. federal funds to the Special Olympics Health program, the organization is able to leverage additional funds from private individuals and organizations to secure high quality health services for people with intellectual disabilities. Public and private support is critical to sustain Special Olympics’ ability to continue offering these programs at no cost to athletes.