Ensuring that the health workforce is adequately trained and equipped to care for patients with intellectual disabilities is an important step in realizing quality health care for this population. Through the establishment of an online learning portal for health care professionals and students to learn about intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics is growing a cadre of health professionals appropriately prepared to provide quality, inclusive health services.
Supporting this platform, The Center for Inclusive Health, launched in 2018 and made possible by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a virtual hub for health care providers, fitness and wellness professionals, professional associations, and businesses to find resources to become more inclusive in their health practices and programming. The Center for Inclusive Health is a powerful tool to help ensure people with intellectual disabilities are included in mainstream health policies, laws, programs, services, training, research, and funding streams.
In addition, Special Olympics and the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD), with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have led the National Curriculum Initiative in Developmental Medicine (NCIDM). This initiative is providing training to medical students in the field of developmental medicine—the care of individuals with intellectual disabilities across their lifespan at various colleges and universities in the United States. Since 2016, 11 medical schools have modified curriculum as part of the NCIDM project and trained more than 1,000 medical students to deliver better care and prevention for people with intellectual disabilities. Through partnership with Special Olympics Programs, another 77 universities have made curriculum changes to other health professional training programs including dental, physical education and physical therapy, dietetics, nursing, public health, and audiology education.
Special Olympics partners with ministries and departments of health, United Nations agencies and other international organizations to create sustainable health systems and quality health services inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities around the world.
Special Olympics is empowering athletes and Special Olympics Programs to play a lead role in building more inclusive health systems through partnerships, advocating for improved access and securing resources to sustain inclusive health programming. For example, SO Papua New Guinea reported three policy changes: 1) a change to the National Disability Policy 2015-2025 to specifically include people with ID, which aims to improve the inclusion of people with ID in community programs; 2) a change to the National Health Plan to improve access to healthcare for people with ID and enhance training of healthcare providers; and 3) a change to the National Sports Policy to improve the inclusion of people with ID in sports. Together, these policy changes have the potential to improve the health of the estimated 82,500 Papua New Guineans who have ID.
Through this work, national, regional and international reforms in policies, services, resources and training are resulting in improvements to accessing quality health care, and ultimately the health outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities. One example is the partnership with the United Way Worldwide, who launched an online toolkit designed to enhance inclusion of disability support services in local 211 resource databases. They will promote the resources in the toolkit during webinars and conferences, test outcomes and progress related to the utilization of inclusive health resources, and develop promotional materials.
Few training programs for health care professionals include curriculum on caring for people with intellectual disabilities, resulting in a workforce that may be unprepared to treat this population. This may lead health professionals to misattribute symptoms to the disability rather than the physical cause, resulting in inadequate and/or delayed treatment. This lack of training is a significant barrier to achieving equitable health for people with intellectual disabilities.
Trained health professionals reported higher levels of improved knowledge and awareness: 89% agreed the training improved their understanding of the health needs of people with intellectual disabilities; 85% agreed they would provide better care for patients with intellectual disabilities as a result of the training.
In response, Special Olympics developed training for healthcare providers on working with people with intellectual disabilities. These free e-learning courses are available online at learn.specialolympics.org. This interactive learning experience arms healthcare providers with the knowledge and understanding of how to be more inclusive as it relates to health programming and services.