50 moments: Healthy Athletes changes the game for individuals with intellectual disabilities

SOBC Healthy Athletes
All smiles at a Special Olympics BC Healthy Athletes screening in 2016.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics this year, we are taking a look back at the #50moments that have defined the Special Olympics movement here in B.C. and throughout the world.

In the 1990s, initial research conducted by Special Olympics determined that very little was known about the health status of people with intellectual disabilities, and that this population simply was not on the radar of most health organizations, policymaking bodies, universities, or health care associations.

Called into action, Special Olympics began to explore ways to address the disparities faced by athletes, using its unique global reach and access to people with intellectual disabilities. The result was the official launch of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes initiative in 1997.

Since then, Healthy Athletes has delivered more than two million free, fun health screenings for people with intellectual disabilities throughout the globe. The Healthy Athletes program currently provides information, screening, and resources in the fields of Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), Special Olympics-Lions Club International Opening Eyes (vision), Special Smiles (dentistry), Strong Minds (mental training), and MedFest (sports physical exams *MedFest is the only discipline not currently offered in B.C.).

Through Healthy Athletes, more than 260,000 health care professionals have received training about the specific health care concerns of people with intellectual disabilities and how to ask the right questions, helping them draw out issues. Their interactions with Special Olympics athletes lead to referrals back into the health care system, ensuring individuals will get the treatment they need.

In 2001, the Lions Clubs International Foundation awarded Special Olympics the first grant in a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment towards the Healthy Athletes Opening Eyes program. Together, Special Olympics and Lions Clubs have worked to bring proper eye care to Special Olympics athletes around the globe. In addition to their financial support, Lions Clubs has supported the Opening Eyes program with thousands of volunteers from more than 80 countries.

The Special Olympics-Lions Club International Foundation Opening Eyes program has now conducted 410,000 eye screenings and provided more than 215,000 pairs of free prescription eyewear to Special Olympics athletes around the world.

In 2012, Special Olympics received the support of the Golisano Foundation, one of the largest foundations dedicated exclusively to providing support for people with intellectual disabilities.

In the time that the Golisano Foundation has been involved with Special Olympics, the average number of Healthy Athletes screenings has increased by an incredible 150 per cent, screening an additional 45,000 athletes per year and training more than 3,000 new health care professionals.

Special Olympics health programs continue to make important strides towards bridging the gap in health outcomes between people with intellectual disabilities and the rest of the population. Here in B.C., Special Olympics BC’s health offerings include Healthy Athletes screenings throughout the province and year-round health support that takes the tenets of the Healthy Athletes events and includes them in year-round programming and opportunities for athletes. This includes:

Learn more about Special Olympics health programs in B.C.

Special Olympics BC’s health work is made possible by the Golisano Foundation grant and the ongoing support of our provincial partners and fundraising events, including the leading role of the Government of British Columbia and the generous support of provincial partner Westminster Savings Credit Union.