Trina Bolton Credit: U.S. Department of State Sports Diplomacy Division/University of Tennessee

Earlier this year, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recommended cutting the federal grant that supports the Special Olympics. In her defense of this proposal, DeVos said the decision on her budget was one of many difficult ones her department had to make, and implied that the Special Olympics received enough support from private organizations to make up for the loss.

Previously, in her confirmation hearing, DeVos fudged a question about a federal law regarding students with disabilities and, in her first year in office, rescinded an eye-opening 72 policy documents which contained guidance for supporting students with disabilities. Trump later reversed Devos’ budgetary proposal but her actions still drew heavy criticism.

And yet, thanks to the efforts of the small-but-mighty sports diplomacy office of the U.S. State Department, community sports leaders around the world see America as a beacon of equality, progress, and inclusion.

“Disability rights has been important to our office since the get-go,” says Trina Bolton, program officer of sports initiatives for the U.S. State Department. “We’ve recognized that the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) is one of the landmark U.S. acts that we want to share on a global scale because then it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Through the Sport 4 Community initiative of the State Department’s Global Sport Mentoring Program (GSMP), 15 international delegates visit the United States for a five-week fellowship program, which wrapped up in early May this year. The delegates are Paralympic athletes or committee members, coaches, community organizers, and non-profit leaders with the same mission as the Special Olympics, but in countries with fewer resources, and often less interest in promoting equality for people of all abilities.

The State Department also works with a number of partners, both in the D.C. area and around the country, who make this program possible. Locally, Prince George’s County Public Schools and the YMCA Anthony Bowen are major contributors. The State Department selected the two for their established expertise in adaptive sports and inclusive community programs.

“They were looking for the opportunity to have an interactive site… an entity that would connect with their group, so we were able to provide that from the beginning,” says Allison Jones, vice president for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.

Many of the delegates became wheelchair users after a catastrophic accident, or have close ties to people with disabilities that motivated them to take on leadership roles in support of this cause. Most visited the United States for the first time, leaving with a picture of a complicated country, but one filled with well-meaning people.

The connection between sports and politics, while controversial to some sports fans, is important to the program.

“Our sports diplomacy division has always been very focused on empowering women and girls, empowering people with disabilities, through sports, and reaching out to underserved youth in marginalized communities through the common passion of sports,” Bolton says.

Sport 4 Community is one of two GSMP initiatives and has graduated four classes since launching in 2016 in conjunction with the Rio Olympics in Brazil. These fellowship style programs start with one week of orientation in D.C. before three weeks of off-site training at different centers of expertise across the country, and then end with another week in D.C. that includes action plan presentations. GSMP has been running a similar program for global women’s sports leaders for seven years.

Delegates return home with an action plan, a Rolodex of helpful contacts, and an idea of what successful implementation looks like. They also learn ways to change the conversation around adaptive sports, accessibility, and inclusion back home. Bolton shares that many former delegates are advocating for legislation in their home countries similar to Title IX and the ADA.

Shams Aalam, who participated in the program last year, has been able to expand and promote adaptive sports programs on a much wider scale since completing the program, reaching remote parts of his native India with para-badminton and other para-sports programs such as swimming, where he has medaled in the Paralympic Games. He’s considered an important public figure in India, and his experience is not atypical of GSMP delegates.

“This all happened, I believe, because of getting mentored during the [GSMP Sport 4 Community Program],” Aalam says. “These kinds of activities are really encouraging and motivating for people with disabilities, and other people too … Now I am going to various universities, colleges … and I have delivered [TEDx Talks] around the country on this issue of accessibility.”

The 2019 delegates of the Sports 4 Community program Credit: U.S. Department of State Sports Diplomacy Division/University of Tennessee

The State Department’s primary partner in the administration of both GSMP programs has been the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. Others who contribute as mentors on behalf of participating organizations in the Sport 4 Community initiative include Joanne Wallen, director of adult play and wheelchair tennis for the United States Tennis Association and Peter Hughes, director of adaptive athletics at the University of Arizona, the largest collegiate adaptive sports program in the country.

“I am so, so thankful [for] the people of the State Department, also the University of Tennessee, for making these five weeks,” says Dr. Javier Perez Tejero, an exercise science professor who coached the Spanish wheelchair basketball team in the 2012 London Paralympic Games. He says this was a formative learning experience, both culturally and in support of his work.

“I learned from the program but also from the rest of the delegates,” Tejero adds. “Knowing how sport can be important [all over the world], then I feel even more secure … in the sense that we know sport can change the lives of people with disabilities.”

While this program is global in reach, the local support ensures the program gets off to a strong start.

“We started really as a host for the group,” says Jones, the VP at YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, “and the more that we learned about the program, the more it was clear that there was tremendous synergy with this program and the work that we do as a non-profit and a charity in our own communities.”

As part of orientation, delegates received training in D.C. through activities such as lectures from Ann Cody, a former Paralympic athlete, current disability rights advocate, and senior foreign affairs officer in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. They also watched the documentary Lives Worth Living, which chronicles the civil rights battle to make accessibility part of federal law in the United States.

By gaining an understanding of the grassroots efforts started decades ago, and how they contributed to improved accessibility in the United States, delegates learn about the advocacy effort required to drive their missions forward. Funding and facilities are important, but changing minds is the goal.

“We talk about how as a change agent you build consensus,” Jones says. “How you gather those influencers in the community and how to be able to impact and deliver this change.”

An incredible amount of effort goes into putting this program, though ultimately in the grand scheme of the State Department’s budget it is not particularly costly. All indications are the program will continue its support and continue to grow the mission, with hundreds of graduates around the world having a multiplying effect, modeling efforts for adaptive sports programming and advocacy on the example set by the U.S.

“[The delegates] are so energetic, so focused on implementing these changes when they go back home,” Jones says. “But they also gain confidence because they see what’s happening [in the U.S.] … so they visualize what can happen back in their country.”