Margaret Spellings

Speech at the 2007 Special Olympics Global Policy Summit - Oct. 3, 2007

Margaret Spellings
October 03, 2007— Shanghai, China
Special Olympics Global Policy Summit
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Thank you, Andrew Williams, for introducing me. It's an honor to be here with you and so many other athletes and supporters of Special Olympics. I'm also honored to be leading a global delegation of so many talented people from the worlds of sports, academia, and business.

I'd like to thank China for hosting this first-ever Global Policy Summit on the Well-Being of Students with Intellectual Disabilities. It's hard to think of a better setting for this event than the Special Olympics.

This morning, I had the honor of meeting the Team USA athletes, including golfer Jason Plante. In addition to competing here today, he is an honor-roll student, and he also plays on his high school golf team, which is among the best in the state. In Jason's opinion, "there is virtually no difference" between learning a sport and learning in school. He's absolutely right. Both take discipline, focus, practice, and high expectations. This summit is a great opportunity for all of us to work together to help more students around the world succeed and thrive as Jason has.

By celebrating the shared joy and mutual respect that sports can foster, Special Olympics have helped people around the world learn to think more in terms of capability than disability.

For example, at the first International Games in 1968, many people thought that swimming pools were dangerous places for people with disabilities. So American Red Cross lifeguards stood shoulder to shoulder around the pool to make sure all of the swimmers were safe. But they never had to jump in. All of the 325 athletes in the pool were perfectly able swimmers.

I think everyone who was there that day probably learned a valuable lesson—don't underestimate what people with disabilities can do.

Unfortunately, when it comes to education, it's taken a long time for people in my country to learn that same lesson. For many years, a lot of well-intended people have done a whole lot of standing by the edge of the pool, worrying whether students with disabilities would sink or swim.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Special Olympics was just getting started, most schools in my country closed their doors to young people like the athletes who are competing here in Shanghai.

More than a million children in the U.S. were excluded from school because of their disabilities. In many states, families faced the stark choice of keeping children at home or sending them to institutions. As a result, many children with intellectual disabilities lived far from their families in conditions that no person should have to endure.

Today, we're still far from perfect. But my country has seen the kind of progress that all of us should strive for and that all of us can achieve. In the last half-century, we in the United States have shifted our national conversation. Instead of asking whether students with disabilities can learn, we are now talking about how to make sure all students achieve. Not in institutions or special facilities, but in their own neighborhood schools, right alongside their peers.

That's a dramatic change in a very short period of time. And we owe much of this progress to people like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, who is a longtime champion for people with disabilities.

Just last week, President Bush signed an executive order to continue and expand the responsibility of the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Mrs. Shriver and her brother, President John F. Kennedy, were driving forces in creating this committee, and I'm proud to be a member today. I'm also honored to have both Mrs. Shriver and her son, Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver, with me on President Bush's delegation to this year's summer games.

In 1962, an exhausted mother called Mrs. Shriver on the phone. She said she didn't know what to do. No summer camp would accept her child because of his disability. Mrs. Shriver told her, "You come here a month from today. I'll start my own camp.

Just like that, she started a free camp right in her own back yard. That camp for 35 kids has grown into this year's largest sporting event in the world: the Special Olympics International Games. As you've heard, nearly 7,500 athletes are competing here in Shanghai. Together, they represent more than 2.4 million people who participate in 15,000 events year-round, worldwide.

As Tim Shriver says, from its very first days, Special Olympics has sent out the message that people with disabilities "deserve the right to participate and compete, on the playing field and off." Tim, you've clearly been listening to your mom's good advice! I'm sure you also learned a thing or two from growing up with that camp in your back yard. I learned the same lessons from working at the Handy Andy grocery store when I was growing up, where several of my co-workers had intellectual disabilities. We worked hard, we got a lot done, and we had a great time together in the process.

So, how can we work to make sure that people with disabilities can participate and compete in school, just like in Special Olympics?

First of all, policymakers and educators like us must take responsibility for educating every single child, instead of picking and choosing. Second, we must think in terms of inclusion—starting with the assumption that students should learn side by side in the same classroom, whether they have disabilities or not. And finally, in addition to including students with disabilities, we must make sure they're learning, too. In other words, it's not OK to tell some kids they can finger paint while everybody else learns how to read.

"In the United States, two landmark laws have helped us put these ideas into action. The first, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975. This law guarantees that students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education. It also requires parents and teachers to develop a customized plan to meet the unique needs of every student in special education, which can mean providing help in the form of speech therapy, a classroom aide, or other kinds of assistance."

Research shows that when schools separate students with disabilities from learning alongside their peers, their teachers and even their parents are more likely to see them as "more disabled." But when you put everyone together in the same classroom, both teachers and parents are more likely to see students with disabilities as the capable people that they are. Most importantly, the students themselves are more likely to see themselves for the capable people they are and so are their peers.

Want to know what else happens when you put everybody together? Students with and without disabilities both do better in school.

In sports terminology, you might say that thanks to IDEA, students with disabilities can get in the game. But as any athlete can tell you, access to the field will only get you so far. To reach your full potential, you need to have high expectations for yourself. And you need people around you who are dedicated to helping you achieve the highest possible goals. We've all seen many examples of that here at the Special Olympics.

When it comes to education, we can put high expectations into action but not only ensuring every child has access to the classroom, but by making sure every student learns. That's what my country's most recent education law is all about. It's called No Child Left Behind.

Families of children with disabilities are among the greatest supporters of this law. Why? First off, it requires schools to measure every child's achievement and to publish results for every student group, including students with disabilities. As a result, educators are focusing on these students more than they ever have before. They are also developing better ways to measure student achievement, and better ways to help every child achieve his or her potential.

Most importantly, No Child Left Behind is proving that if we raise our expectations, our children will rise to the challenge. As my mother used to say, nothing sells like success. In other words, once people see one student with a disability who is succeeding in school, they realize that other kids can achieve the same results.

In fact, our latest national report card confirms that No Child Left Behind is making a significant difference for children with disabilities. Results released just last week show that between 2000 and 2007, the percentage of U.S. fourth graders with disabilities who have basic math skills doubled, from 30 to 60 percent. That's 140,000 more kids with fundamental skills! In many cases, students with disabilities are outpacing their peers who do not have disabilities.

Now that we're making strong progress in K-12 schools, the next frontier is college. Especially now that higher education is becoming more and more essential for everyone in our global knowledge economy. That's why I'm pleased to announce that my department will provide 1.5 million dollars to create a Technical Assistance Center to help colleges and universities develop and expand programs for students with intellectual disabilities. By collecting and sharing information about effective coursework, supports and services, and community outreach strategies, the center will help more students enjoy a meaningful and rewarding college education.

Just like Special Olympics, we in education must always seek new adventures and challenges for what we can achieve, and for what our children can achieve. Any athlete here will tell you that is the only way to improve. And every competition here proves just how right they are.

Over the last few decades, Special Olympics has started to transform the way people around the world think about what people with disabilities can do. Together, we can work to do the same in education.

Thank you.

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