Global responsibility to meet health needs of people with intellectual disabilities on World Health Day

 It is essential as equal citizens that people with intellectual disabilities receive the proper services they need and deserve in order to lead healthy and happy lives.

Special Olympics has provided 1.2 million health screenings in more than 100 countries. 90,000 free pairs of eyeglasses have been given to athletes.

Statement from Mary Davis, Regional President of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia on World Health Day:

Zuebeyde Horus, a Special Olympics athlete from Turkey, exemplifies the power of Special Olympics to transform lives.  Like many people with an intellectual disability, Zuebeyde was living with a serious heart condition, but nobody was aware of it. A volunteer doctor discovered it by simply listening to her heart with a stethoscope at a Special Olympics Healthy Athlete event.

At a follow-up appointment, Zuebeyde was diagnosed with Atrioventricular Septal defect.The condition means there is a hole between the various chambers and valves of the heart which causes abnormal blood flow and forces the heart to work much harder than it normally should. Zuebeyde underwent life saving surgery within days of being diagnosed. This type of defect is associated with intellectual disabilities and it is estimated that 45% of children with Down Syndrome have some type of congenital heart disease.

Without the volunteer health care professionals who carry out these screenings, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes programme would not exist and athletes like Zuebeyde would not have been helped so today on World Health Day, Special Olympics athletes, families, coaches and staff, sincerely thank these extraordinary volunteers.

World Health Day is celebrated on April 7th every year to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organisation in 1948. The Day is a global campaign inviting everyone from world leaders to the general public to focus on health issues and challenges that have global impact and which protect people's health and well-being. Today I encourage people to focus on the health needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

“You can't compete if your feet hurt, if your teeth hurt or if your ears ache.”

This quote from a Special Olympics athlete correctly sums up the motivation behind the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Programme.

People with intellectual disabilities have a 40 per cent higher risk than the rest of the population of having several preventable health conditions, which is why the Healthy Athletes Programme is so necessary.

For more than 14 years, Special Olympics has been serving athletes by offering free health screenings and health information at local, regional and World Games and in many cases lives, limbs, eyesight and hearing have been saved. 

Special Olympics has become the world’s largest public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities and maintains the largest database of health information in existence. The Healthy Athletes Programme is responsible for: 120,000 healthcare professionals trained; more than 1.2 million screenings provided to athletes in more than 100 countries; more than 90,000 free pairs of eyeglasses given to athletes. The most moving aspect of the Healthy Athletes programme is that so many athletes screened did not know they had any health problems. Health screenings are offered 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).

World Health Day is an opportunity for everyone to emphasis the urgency for a much greater understanding and an informed debate on the medical needs and challenges faced by people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

The reality is that people with intellectual disabilities have more specialised health care needs and greater difficulty accessing health care services and health care professionals compared to the wider general public. A major study in the US revealed that 80 per cent of medical school students receive no clinical training in treating people with intellectual disabilities.

Research conducted by Special Olympics has found that doctors have difficulty in diagnosing and prescribing treatment for people with intellectual disabilities for many reasons but poor bodily awareness and depressed pain responses are revealed as prominent factors.

The impact on many volunteer doctors and nurses after getting involved in the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Programme is significant. They drastically alter the way they work, teach and conduct research in order to be more inclusive of patients with intellectual disabilities. The power of Special Olympics is change -- the power to change lives for the better -- and health is a cornerstone of our programming and research.

It is essential as equal citizens that people with intellectual disabilities receive the proper services they need and deserve in order to lead healthy and happy lives.