This is a tragic fact often ignored: people with intellectual disabilities (ID) are at higher risk for many preventable health conditions. That’s why Special Olympics’ expanded health initiatives are racing to close the health gap between people with ID and those without.
To date, athletes have received more than 2 million free screenings through the Healthy Athletes program since its founding more than 20 years ago. Special Olympics Health, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, and in the United States in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is creating a world where people with intellectual disabilities have every opportunity to be healthy.
In 2019 alone, Special Olympics Health provided more than 157,000 free health screenings and services to athletes. As we know, this is often the first time our athletes are seen by a specially trained healthcare professional. This is just one of the ways Special Olympics works to save lives and bring improved health to people with intellectual disabilities, across the globe.
Healthier Communities Worldwide
Started as a pilot in 2012 in nine countries, Special Olympics Healthy Communities has expanded to more than 66 countries, 34 US states/territories, and four Canadian provinces. Healthy Communities unlocks doors to quality health screenings, follow-up care, plus fitness and prevention programming for people with ID worldwide. Our Golisano partnership also helps us collaborate with international organizations, providers and health-care authorities to better meet the needs of this neglected population.
Healthy Communities® is our successful model that ensures year-round access to quality health care and prevention programming for people with ID. This year, more than 100 Special Olympics Programs have achieved Healthy Communities status — in 68 countries!
In 2019, Special Olympics has also been championing inclusive health by:
- Training health professionals, students and workers
- Training and activating health advocates, including family members, athletes, and coaches
- Developing, influencing and training health partners to create inclusive health system networks, referral systems and prevention opportunities, programming and resources
- Developing and disseminating inclusive health resources
- Providing health screenings and connecting Special Olympics athletes to follow-up care and, most of all,
- Promoting fitness and physical activity across the Special Olympics movement!!
Our health work also includes care that prevents disease progression: 51% of athletes screened and receiving follow-up care at a Special Smiles screening no longer needed referrals for urgent dental treatment; 61% improved their blood pressure; and 67% no longer had mouth pain. This work also improves health of athletes through fitness: studies show that athletes in our fitness programming are actually lowering their blood pressure. In fact, 16% of those with high blood pressure eventually achieve normal readings.
Throughout, we continue to work closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Together, we are implementing health programs and launching academic curricula that are more inclusive of people with ID.
From 2018 to 2019, Special Olympics Health documented significant growth in many key health metrics -- including Healthy Athletes screenings in new locations -- with the growth even more pronounced among Healthy Communities grantees.
Several regions were able to make tremendous strides. For example, in the Middle East/North Africa region—host to the 2019 World Games -- we saw:
- 143% increase in the number of Healthy Athletes screenings provided.
- 127% increase in the number of people with ID in ongoing health, fitness and wellness programs.
- 45% increase in the number of healthcare professionals and students trained.
Special Olympics Programs are also expanding the reach of their fitness activity offerings to athletes of every age by providing fitness programming at sport practice, day centers, fitness centers, schools, and online.
At a global level, Special Olympics continues to develop and distribute crucial resources to educate athletes, coaches, and families on the importance of healthy habits. One such resource — Fit 5 and the corresponding fitness cards and videos — continues to be a versatile tool not only for educating athletes but also for facilitating at-home physical activity and good nutrition. Learn more about Special Olympics year-round fitness resources here.
We also continued training our athletes to advocate for their own health, thanks to innovative trainings all around the world. Since the Health Messenger program launched in 2016, we have trained more than 4,600 athlete leaders to be health advocates.
Engaging families also remains a core tenet of our Health programming. Families can support delivery of health services and are often crucial advocates for increasing awareness and inclusion. So far, more than 11,000 family members have been trained on the health needs of people with ID. Special Olympics Family Health Forums also help caregivers of people with ID learn from health professionals, community leaders, and service providers. Fitness (including hydration and nutrition) is the most common topic covered during Family Health Forums, but they can also focus on diabetes prevention and management, emotional wellness and mental health, healthy relationships, hygiene, and social inclusion. Other topics included violence prevention, first aid, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.
Staying Connected, Staying Healthy—Even During a Pandemic
In 2020, with in-person health-screening activities curtailed, Special Olympics pivoted to virtual models. Through creative and innovative approaches, we were able to provide engaging models such as virtual fitness programming, which reached four times the number of participants compared with 2019.
Similar shifts took place in other areas of health programming such as the introduction of virtual health screening and education using telehealth models, the expansion of our online training to health-care professionals, and the development of a virtual family health forum model, which proved especially effective in reaching large numbers of family members on relevant health topics.
The particular vulnerability of individuals with intellectual disabilities to contracting and dying from COVID resulted in various initiatives, including a wide-reaching, multimedia campaign aimed at educating Special Olympics athletes on reducing risk of contraction and severe illness, and advocating for improved access to quality care during COVID, as well as access to vaccines and tackling vaccine hesitancy. The content for these campaigns was informed by the evolving literature as well as two global surveys of athletes aimed at understanding COVID-related trends specific to Special Olympics athletes.
Our Inclusive Health message was heard far and wide to remind audiences of the importance of health care provider training, share fitness resources and programming, and advocate for equitable treatment for people with intellectual disabilities. Our presence in healthy lifestyle and fitness stories, courtesy of top-tier reporters and show hosts, helped to spread the word.
In the first half of 2021, with the pandemic still in place, virtual interventions remained a priority including app-based fitness challenges and virtual health education models. With the reduction in restrictions in the latter part of the year, in-person activities -- including health screenings, fitness and early childhood development programming -- resumed, albeit at lower levels of participation than prior to the pandemic.
During the course of the year, the health programming continued to evolve and be responsive to the shifting context. As a result, a new pediatric health screening was developed and piloted, modifications were made to existing screening protocols, dedicated webinars for health care professionals were created and promoted, and a virtual Health Summit was staged to engage key audiences around our current and future health programs.