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Disabilities Beat: How the New York State budget could impact sports access for disabled athletes

A figure skater competes at Special Olympics New York's 2024 winter games in Syracuse, NY.
Lynne Bader
Buffalo Toronto Public Media
A figure skater competes at Special Olympics New York's 2024 winter games in Syracuse, NY.

In early April, New York State will finalize its 2025 budget, which always impacts a variety of programs and services utilized by New Yorkers with disabilities. One of those programs is Special Olympics, an organization that provides a variety of free opportunities for athletes of all ages with disabilities.

On this week's Disabilities Beat, we speak with Special Olympics New York CEO, Stacey Hengsterman, who explains exactly what Special Olympics provides. She joined us back in December for an exclusive interview to share that they will face cuts if the state doesn't increase their funding, which they claim has remained stagnant at $1.5 million over the past 20 years.

PLAIN LANGUAGE DESCRIPTION: This week on the Disabilties Beat, we speak with the head of Special Olympics New York, Stacey Hengsterman. Special Olympics provides a variety of free competitive sports programs for people of all ages with disabilities. But Special Olympics gets some of their money from New York State, and they claim that the state hasn't increased how much money they give to Special Olympics in 20 years. This is a problem for Special Olympics, because if their funding isn't increased, they may need to cut some of these programs. WBFO's Disabilities Reporter Emyle Watkins talks with Stacey in this interview about what Special Olympics offers, so people understand the programs that are at risk.


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I'm Emyle Watkins. This is the WBFO Disabilities Beat. In just a few weeks, New York State will finalize its 2025 budget, which always impacts a variety of programs and services utilized by New Yorkers with disabilities.

Today, we're focusing on one of those programs. Back in December, I sat down with Special Olympics New York CEO, Stacey Hengsterman, for an exclusive interview about the program cuts they'll face if the state doesn't increase their funding, which they claim has remained stagnant at $1.5 million over the past 20 years.

Stacey Hengsterman: Next year in the budget, we've had to say, we can't do as much, as big of recruiting as we've done in the past. In addition to that, we have to take away some games and some opportunities for our existing athletes.

Emyle Watkins: Governor Kathy Hochul included a $1 million increase in her proposed budget earlier this year, but it will still have to clear the two Houses' revisions and final voting on the budget.

Today, we share part of my interview with Hengsterman, who explains exactly what Special Olympics provides for New Yorkers of all ages with disabilities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Emyle Watkins: Stacey, thank you so much for joining me on WBFO.

Stacey Hengsterman: Oh, thank you for having me here.

Emyle Watkins: To start, tell me a little bit about how you got into Special Olympics and how you rose to being CEO of Special Olympics.

Stacey Hengsterman: Yeah. That was just really it. They were looking for a president and CEO of Special Olympics New York. I got the job five years ago. I think what's most notable about it is I live in the Albany area, that's where our headquarters are. We have seven offices across the state. Obviously, a great leadership position for me in my hometown. My husband's a teacher, so I'm place-based.

But my son has a disability. He's 19 now, Alex, he has Down syndrome. I've always had a great deal of respect for the Special Olympics, but never really knew much about it more than I just thought the big games and the charity of it all. When I got the job, I really realized how authentic it was, how inclusive it was for people with disabilities. Then, my son ended up getting involved in a couple of different sports, but powerlifting is his big sport right now, which I never would have imagined. To hear him tell me continually that it's changed his life, just shows me how important it is and how much I want to make sure that people in New York, specifically parents of people with disabilities, know that we're here and what a life-changing program it could be.

Emyle Watkins: Walk me through some of the different programs Special Olympics has.

Stacey Hengsterman: Yeah. We're a sports organization, first and foremost. But what I think we're very proud of is the work that we do in healthcare. What Special Olympics has done is really worked to bring the healthcare, to train, I think we're just training, retraining clinical directors. We have at all of our big games, health screenings, where we have Special Olympics trained dentists, checking out those teeth, making sure everything's okay. We have eyes. A lot of times, people with disabilities, they need new glasses but they didn't communicate that so they're not seeing as well as they can. Their ears, their mental health. Working on nutrition and making sure they know the right things to put in their bodies. Really we just say, "You can't compete if you're not healthy." That's really had a big impact. Then, if we do find that our athletes need follow-up care, we make sure they have the referrals to do that.

Emyle Watkins: That's so interesting. I didn't know that Special Olympics is not only creating more opportunities for people with disabilities to play sports, but you're also bridging this healthcare gap. What kind of outcomes have come from that? What have you heard from families?

Stacey Hengsterman: Yeah. I mean, great. My favorite one is the young lady that usually took the silver medal, she usually came in second in track. Went through one of our screenings and her glasses, they were not the right prescription. They made her new glasses on the spot and she took gold that day. We found that she was always following the person in front of her because she couldn't see that well, so she just liked to have that. Once she got those new glasses, she went through.

We've had new hearing aids. People that could hear more clearly, at those screenings, by just putting those new hearing aids in their ears. Obviously, these are trained professionals that just have also gotten the certification from us to be able to treat our athletes.

Emyle Watkins: I know that the key component of your program is creating sports opportunities for kids who maybe, at their schools, don't have those opportunities.

Stacey Hengsterman: Yeah.

Emyle Watkins: Walk me through those programs, because I know you have Unified Sports. You have the games three times a year.

Stacey Hengsterman: Yes.

Emyle Watkins: But tell me about all those programs.

Stacey Hengsterman: Yes. We have our traditional sports, that training club that I was talking to you about my son, he's power lifting. It can be from age nine. We just saw a figure skater yesterday, it was her first time on the ice, joining a training club at nine years old.

Then we also have, really starting in the schools program, our Unified Sports program. Which is, the easiest way to think about it is just think about JV, just think about varsity, how those teams play inter-scholastically to be the champion. Unified is half the kids have a disability and half do not. On the basketball court, you'll always see half-and-half. You might not be able to tell probably, who has a disability and who doesn't, because it's authentic basketball and it should be. There are refs there and we urge them, sometimes remind them, "You got to blow that whistle." But it's inclusive sports in high schools and middle schools, all the way down to elementary school. We can start with a unified physical education class.

Emyle Watkins: I think when we think about Special Olympics and sports for kids with disabilities, and especially as a journalist I'm cognizant of this, there's a lot of stories that are like, "Oh, they're an inspiration."

Stacey Hengsterman: Yes.

Emyle Watkins: "Just for playing the sport." Just for playing the sport everyone else is playing.

Stacey Hengsterman: Yeah.

Emyle Watkins: How do you calm that narrative? What narrative do you want people to understand about disability and about people who play sports with a disability?

Stacey Hengsterman: I mean, the easiest way to combat it is have them meet our athletes. Matt Graham dead lifted 400 pounds a few weeks ago. You tell me that that is ... That's an inspiration, for a different reason. He's working really hard. Trent Hampton runs a four-minute mile. I think that I had to learn that too, when you go back to what I thought about Special Olympics, and I thought it was charity. That everybody wins, everybody runs, everybody gets a medal. When I first saw a competition where our guy lost, and really lost, and I thought, "Oh gosh, could he do it again?" No, this is sports. Nobody gets a do-over.

It's why would we think that just because you have an intellectual difference, you wouldn't want the same opportunity for competitive sports? A lot of our athletes find us because they've been in other sports programs where they don't follow the rules. I'm not taking anything away from that. There's other, that you're just doing it recreationally, so you get to try to hit the ball as many times as you can til you hit the ball. There's nothing wrong if people are looking for recreation sports. But there is a large part of the disability community that's looking for competitive sports and that's what Special Olympics is.

Emyle Watkins: To listen to the Disabilities Beat segment on demand, view a transcript, plain language description and learn more about Special Olympics, visit our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins, thanks for listening.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.
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