Creating #InclusiveHealth for people with intellectual disabilities

The current opportunities


The need

People with intellectual disabilities experience worse health care and access to services than others in their communities. Globally, millions of people with intellectual disabilities lack access to quality health care and experience dramatically higher rates of preventable disease, chronic pain and suffering, and premature death in every country around the world. In developing and developed countries alike, people with intellectual disabilities are consistently one of the most marginalized population subsets – a status that comes with horrific health outcomes, such as:

  • Higher rates of premature death: A 2013 United Kingdom study found that people with intellectual disabilities were more than twice as likely to die before the age of 50 than the general population. A 2015 review of what is currently known about mortality among Canadians with intellectual and developmental disabilities showed the overall mortality was more than five times higher in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities compared to people the same age, sex, and residence. The majority of these deaths in the general population were due to lifestyle factors. In contrast, premature deaths of individuals with intellectual disabilities were primarily due to delays or problems investigating, diagnosing, and treating illnesses, and with receiving appropriate care.
  • Higher rates of obesity: In 2013, the global adult obesity rate was 33.9 per cent for adults with intellectual disabilities examined by Special Olympics, compared to 12 per cent of the general population.

Through the international findings, we can infer that British Columbians with intellectual disabilities likely have lower life expectancies, live more sedentary lifestyles, and are hospitalized more frequently than the general population.

A person with a disability is not an inherently unhealthy person. Health status is affected by genetics, social circumstances, environment, individual behavior, and health care access. Special Olympics is addressing the range of barriers that affect the health of individuals with intellectual disabilities, which include lack of access, education, and resources.

Many individuals with intellectual disabilities have trouble realizing or expressing their health concerns, and many health professionals have not had the opportunity to receive specific training, or are not familiar enough with this population, to know the best questions to ask to draw out the issues.

Special Olympics is changing the game for athlete health. Our ultimate goal is to create a world where people with and without intellectual disabilities have the same opportunity to be healthy.

Global fact sheet on health and intellectual disability


The vision

Special Olympics BC athletes at a Healthy Athletes screening.
Special Olympics BC athletes enjoying a Healthy Athletes Screening Day.

The vision of the Special Olympics Health program, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, is to create a world where people with intellectual disabilities have the same opportunities and access to health care as people without intellectual disabilities, and in doing so, allow Special Olympics athletes to perform their best on and off the playing field. 

Special Olympics is working to create a tipping point where health becomes inclusive for people with intellectual disabilities globally by changing curriculum, training health care professionals and policymakers, influencing policy, advocating for inclusive health programming, building partnerships for followup care, and harnessing the power of the Special Olympics movement to build awareness.

Internationally, Special Olympics has become the largest public health organization for people with intellectual disabilities.

It is our belief that B.C. has the resources and expertise necessary to become a national and global leader in the field of health services for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Global health strategy


The action

To address the health disparities our athletes face, Special Olympics is leading a number of integrated and complementary efforts to strengthen the capacity of existing systems of care. Special Olympics Health is integrated into all Special Olympics sports, family, and youth programs, and also strengthens linkages with community care networks and other local partners who can support the health and wellbeing of Special Olympics athletes year-round.

The goal of the Special Olympics Health program is to ensure inclusive health for people with intellectual disabilities, meaning equitable access to quality health care, education, and services throughout communities.

Special Olympics British Columbia’s health offerings include Healthy Athletes screenings and year-round health support including:

SOBC Locals play a critical part in this work by offering Club Fit programs, promoting health events and resources, and encouraging healthy living year-round.

Special Olympics BC also worked with the Champions for Inclusive Health Stakeholder Coalition to research and reduce the health disparities between people with intellectual disabilities and the general population.

learn more about Healthy Athletes

Find more SOBC health resources


The supporters

Globally, Special Olympics Health is made possible by the vision and support of the Golisano Foundation, and partners such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Lions Clubs International.

Here in B.C., Special Olympics BC’s health work is made possible by the ongoing support of our provincial partners and fundraising events, including the leading role of the Government of British Columbia, Government of Canada, and RBC Foundation.


The testimonials

Watch athlete Corey Yee and his aunt Judy share their Healthy Athletes experience: 

Watch Healthy Athletes B.C. Opening Eyes Clinical Director Dr. Brad McDougall share why he enjoys being involved:

Dr. McDougall says volunteering with Healthy Athletes is an inspiring experience, and the screening days are highly rewarding for both volunteers and participants. At one SOBC Healthy Athletes screening day, he said, "we saw a few athletes that we had seen at previous Healthy Athletes events, and their parents and coaches described to us how much the glasses we provided for them have made a difference in their sport, in their confidence, and to the overall quality of their lives.”

Healthy Athletes B.C. Special Smiles Clinical Director Carol Yakiwchuk: “What really stands out for me is the eagerness that of athletes to participate in the Special Smiles program. I think this really speaks to our goal of creating a very safe environment for individuals within our Healthy Athletes programs. … [At the 2015 SOBC Healthy Athletes Screening Day in Nanaimo] we were so very fortunate to welcome a number of dental hygiene students from Vancouver Island University to the Special Smiles program at the Nanaimo event. Really, this creates a win-win situation. The athletes receive excellent care, information, and oral health advice; and these soon-to-be graduates build the competence and confidence to successfully work with individuals with intellectual disabilities in their future careers! To top it off, every volunteer walks away with that awesome feeling of having made a difference.” Read more from Carol

Special Olympics BC – Oceanside bocce coach Jim: “It is the most wonderful feeling at Provincial Games to see the amazing health practitioners involved in the Special Olympics BC Healthy Athletes program. They take the time to check the eyes of every athlete. If prescription glasses are needed they are given for free, and if not, the athlete gets to pick out a pair of sunglasses. Healthy Athletes is such a great gift to all the participants.”

Nazima, health professional: "Working with Special Olympics has been an eyeopener. The athletes have such a positive attitude and have overcome so many obstacles it is a great reminder that anything is possible. The athletes are so appreciative it makes all the effort and planning worthwhile!"

SOBC athlete Conrad at an SOBC Healthy Athletes Screening Day: “Everyone’s been dedicating their time, and that’s what stood out for me the most. I can’t believe this is happening, all these people putting in their time and effort doing this, this is a lot of work."

Former SOBC – Burnaby Local Coordinator Sara: “Our Burnaby athletes and I had a fun time going through all the different [Healthy Athletes] stations... The nutritional games were simple yet informative for the athletes. One of the best parts was the healthy eyes station, as a lot of our athletes were fitted for new eyeglasses and/or sport goggles. And I know one athlete that really benefitted from the healthy feet station and getting an important referral to a specialist.”

Please get involved and make a difference