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.
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. #inclusivehealth
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 follow up 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 ID.
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.
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
- Year-round health support including Club Fit programs, the information and support offered through provincial programming such as the Performance Program and functional testing, the development of health, fitness, and nutrition resources on the SOBC website, and the new or expanded programming supported by our Special Olympics Healthy Communities grant from the Golisano Foundation (read more below). 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.
Since 1997, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, also supported by Golisano, has been providing free, fun screenings and education for people with intellectual disabilities 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 Bodies, Strong Minds (mental training), and MedFest (sports physical exams *MedFest is the only discipline not currently offered in B.C.).
Through Healthy Athletes, health care professionals receive 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 that ensure the individuals will get the treatment they need. To date, more than 155,000 volunteer health care professionals worldwide have been trained through Healthy Athletes.
Since the launch of the Healthy Athletes program in 1997, these trained practitioners have provided more than 1.7 million free Healthy Athletes screenings to Special Olympics athletes in more than 134 countries, and have distributed 110,000 free pairs of prescription eyewear. Special Olympics now maintains the largest dataset on the health of people with intellectual disabilities.
Special Olympics BC offers Healthy Athletes screenings in events around the province open to all individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as at Provincial Games. These events are free for all participants. All the screenings are conducted in a fun, friendly environment where athletes feel welcome and at ease. The screenings are conducted using quality equipment and fun tools to make the experience both valuable and enjoyable.
Watch our video to understand what our free, fun Healthy Athletes screenings are all about:
Many athletes and caregivers have been surprised to go through the Healthy Athletes screenings and find health issues that have gone undiagnosed through regular health channels. The Budzegan family found that happened for son Carson, an SOBC – Langley athlete. Eye examinations from medical professionals at SOBC’s Healthy Athletes screening day in March 2011 led Carson and his family to seek more tests that showed the then-22 year old was at a critical risk from cataracts. Thanks to these interventions, Carson, an aspiring photographer, was scheduled for surgeries that would help save his sight. Carson’s family diligently cares for him and all his medical needs, but the Healthy Athletes screening helped bring to light a problem that had gone unvoiced until that moment.
Special Olympics BC’s Healthy Athletes Screening Survey showed 29 per cent of caregivers said Healthy Athletes screenings have detected a medical concern that they were otherwise unaware of, and 77.8 per cent of caregivers have felt that attending a Healthy Athletes screening has helped them learn about health care.
Healthy Athletes screening disciplines in British Columbia
- Fit Feet
- Health Promotion
- Healthy Hearing
- Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes
- Special Smiles
- Strong Minds, Strong Bodies
Additional year-round health programming
Building on Healthy Athletes, Special Olympics Programs are working on offering year-round inclusive health programming through the Healthy Communities initiative, taking the tenets of the Healthy Athletes events and including them into year-round programming and opportunities for athletes. The goal is to create networks of health and wellness organizations and health care providers so that all people with intellectual disabilities can achieve the same level of health and wellbeing as others in their community, where there is no “wrong door” through which someone with intellectual disabilities can walk.
Healthy Communities programming is made possible through a $25-million commitment to Special Olympics from the Golisano Foundation. Special Olympics BC is the recipient of a three-year Golisano Foundation Healthy Communities grant beginning in 2016, and we are working toward official recognition as a Special Olympics Healthy Community.
To date, SOBC’s year-round health work has included Club Fit programming, the information and support offered through SOBC’s Performance Program and functional testing, and the development of health, fitness, and nutrition resources on the SOBC website. With the support of the Special Olympics Healthy Communities grant from the Golisano Foundation, SOBC is expanding existing programming and introducing new programs and strategic work to help address the health disparities faced by individuals with intellectual disabilities (read more below).
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.
With the support of the Healthy Communities grant, the Golisano Foundation, and our ongoing Provincial Partners, SOBC will be continuing our work to:
- increase the sustainability of health programming and access to followup care,
- improve the health status of athletes by offering health and wellness programming outside of our Healthy Athletes clinics and ensuring at least 20 per cent of athletes are enrolled in a wellness program per year,
- increase the awareness and education of health professionals on treating individuals with intellectual disabilities by developing and implementing education for health professionals and students,
- create health programming for families and caregivers of athletes,
- train and empower athlete leaders to be health and nutritional advocates for fellow athletes and work with an advisory council for the SOBC health strategy during the Healthy Community project period,
- and create Golisano Health Leadership Awards to present to health leaders supporting this important work.
Special Olympics BC is creating a strategic plan to work with partners to reduce the health disparities between people with intellectual disabilities and the general population.
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 Golisano Foundation grant and the ongoing support of our provincial partners and fundraising events, including the leading role of the Government of British Columbia.
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 [the 2016 SOBC Healthy Athletes Screening Day in North Vancouver] 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.”
Ricky Lau, an audiology student at the University of British Columbia, volunteered at the Healthy Hearing screenings in the 2016 SOBC Healthy Athletes Screening Day in Prince George. This was Lau’s second time attending a Healthy Athletes Screening Day, as he had previously given his time at an event in Vancouver. Lau said volunteering at a Healthy Athletes Screening Day is a fun and rewarding experience. “When you see them you really feel the positive attitudes the athletes have and it brings you to smiles.”
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.”
Special Olympics BC – Oceanside bocce coach Jim Cormier: “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 the 2012 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."
Sara Foss, former SOBC – Burnaby Local Coordinator, accompanied a group of athletes to the 2011 wellness day: “It was a great day! Our Burnaby athletes and I had a fun time going through all the different 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.”
Upcoming Healthy Athletes events
Healthy Athletes stories
Athlete Health Resources
"Working with Special Olympics has been an eye-opener. 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!"
-Nazima, health professional
“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."
-Conrad, SOBC athlete, at the 2012 Healthy Athletes Screening Day
“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.”
-SOBC coach Jim Cormier