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Learn About Healthy Athletes

We are all in favor of eliminating unnecessary suffering. Poverty and famine have received billions in aid over the years. What if you could help 200 million people worldwide who suffer needlessly from chronic pain and disease, blindness and hearing loss, shortened life span, depression and suicide?

For more than 10 years, Special Olympics has been serving athletes by offering free health screenings and health information at local, regional and World Games. In the process, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.

At more than 1 million screenings in more than 100 countries, volunteer health professionals have brought free preventative medicine and care to athletes in dire need of basic checkups, and sometimes more.

"I Can See the the Sun!"

Moise Ahoussimou, a poor West African boy with an intellectual disability and next to no vision, is one example. When a Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® screening was offered in Porto Novo, Benin, a volunteer doctor realized Moise had been blinded by cataracts. Though he was referred for a simple operation, Moise left his appointment with restored sight. He saw his father for the first time. “I can see, I can see trees, I can see houses, I can see the sun,” he said. He grabbed his father’s hand. “Hey! Dad, I didn’t know you are that tall!”

Miracles at Every Turn

Miracles like Moise’s happen at every screening. Dustin Plunkett of California, USA, was screened by a dentist and saved from mouth cancer. Mariam Zakhary of Egypt, fitted with a hearing aid, heard her language and her coach for the first time in her life. Stories like Mariam’s are inspiring nations like Egypt to expand their offerings to athletes. Under Egypt’s Minister of Health, Dr. Ismail Salam, all Special Olympics Egypt athletes now receive medical exams – and those who need further treatment and follow-up care are provided it by the government.

Revealing Lack of Care

By listening to athletes at events and conducting research over many years, Special Olympics leaders became aware of the lack of quality health care for people with intellectual disabilities and found it unacceptable. We found that people with intellectual disabilities have a 40 percent greater risk for health issues, and that health care professionals are not trained in or experienced with caring for people with intellectual disabilities.

Extending Our Reach

Called into action, we began to explore ways to help using Special Olympics’ unique global reach and access to people with intellectual disabilities. The result was the launch of the Healthy Athletes® initiative in 1997. Today, Healthy Athletes provides health screenings free of charge at Special Olympics competitions. Offered in a welcoming, fun environment, these screenings educate athletes on healthy lifestyle choices and identify problems that may need additional follow-up.

Healthy Athletes currently offers health screenings in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision) and Special Smiles (dentistry). (Learn more about all these on the Special Olympics Resources site for Healthy Athletes.)

Volunteers Providing Miracles

Through a global team of health-care volunteers, Healthy Athletes works to improve access and health care for Special Olympics athletes; make referrals to local health practitioners when appropriate; train health care professionals and students about the needs and care of people with intellectual disabilities; collect, analyze and dessiminate data on the health status and needs of people with intellectual disabilities; and advocate for improved health policies and programs for people with intellectual disabilities.

Healthy Athletes' influence is evident with more than 120,000 healthcare professionals trained, free health screenings provided to more than 1.2 million athletes, and 90,000 free pairs of eyeglasses given to athletes. And Healthy Athletes continues to grow each year with help from a global network of volunteers, in-kind donations and other financial support.

For more information on Healthy Athletes, contact Karl Hejlik, Senior Manager, Health and Research Communciations, at +1 (202) 824-0308 or khejlik@specialolympics.org.