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Special Olympics Athletes Get Face Time With Members

Special Olympian Jason Gieschen shows off his medals during a visit to Congress in 2009. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

More than three-dozen Special Olympics athletes from around the country visited members of Congress Wednesday for the organization's 12th annual Capitol Hill Day.  

The athletes were seeking funding to expand the Special Olympics' school-based program, Project Unify, which pushes for more sports being made available to children with intellectual disabilities across the country. The additional money would also go toward improving the health screening and education for Special Olympics participants. In an interview with CQ Roll Call in the Hart Basement Wednesday, Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver said more than 50 athletes from 39 states planned to visit more than 100 members. According to meetings documented on Twitter, they included Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Steve Scalise, R-La.  

Beyond additional funding, Shriver said the goal was to "make sure their members of Congress know and understand that they’re engaged in a social justice movement, a human rights movement." He cited Title IX and the impact it had on society.  

"Now, [people] can’t fathom that there was a boys basketball team and a boys baseball team and a boys football team and no girls teams. ... It changed American education, just by allowing women to play. It showed that women are physically strong, confident, team members, all the things that school sport exemplify," he said. "I think we ought to have a Title IX for people with intellectual disabilities, Title Unify."  

Now a dozen years into its existence, the Special Olympics's Capitol Hill Day originated after dentists and optometrists were asked to screen the athletes.  

"We found shocking results," Shriver said. "Almost 15 percent of the athletes who came [from all over] had to go to the emergency room because they had undiagnosed levels of significant oral disease."  

Shriver described the situation as “a real set of health injustices that were just unacceptable.”  

The Special Olympics athletes "are really important teachers. When you want to learn how to slow down your life, to create space to listen to someone else, to try to learn what someone else is really all about, our athletes … do that. And everybody needs that, more than ever."  

Shriver said he was finding the climate on the Hill "a little more receptive this year than the last couple of years."  

Correction 3:22 p.m. A previous version of this story misstated the number athletes visiting members. It is more than 50.  

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