In 1993, when Rosemary Kennedy went for a routine dentist visit, her team of dentists recommended the removal of all her teeth. Her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver refused to accept this recommendation and sought a second opinion from Dr. Steven Perlman, a pediatric special needs dentist in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Perlman was able to restore Rosemary’s oral health without the removal of any teeth.
“After successfully treating Rosemary, Mrs. Shriver challenged me to create a program within Special Olympics to provide health screenings for all of the athletes. At the Massachusetts State Games in 1993, my colleagues and I at Boston University orally screened the athletes competing.” (This was the moment health care changed for people with intellectual disabilities (ID) and the beginning of Special Olympics Healthy Athletes.)
“After successfully treating Rosemary, Mrs. Shriver challenged me to create a program within Special Olympics to provide health screenings for all of the athletes. At the Massachusetts State Games in 1993, my colleagues and I at Boston University orally screened the athletes competing.” This was the moment health care changed for people with intellectual disabilities (ID) and the beginning of Special Olympics Healthy Athletes, explains Perlman.
Around the same time, New Jersey optometrist Dr. Paul Berman recognized a gap in the vision care offered to people with ID. With Special Olympics and the American Optometric Association, Dr. Berman led the creation of vision screenings for athletes.
These two programs, now known as Special Smiles and Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Foundation Opening Eyes, were the seedlings that launched the life-saving and life-changing inclusive health programming led by Special Olympics.
In 2012, Tom Golisano, Founder and Chairman of Paychex, Inc. and the Golisano Foundation, made a generous donation to Special Olympics to ensure people with ID have access to quality health care. Tom Golisano is an advocate for people with ID, and the Golisano Foundation is one of the largest foundations in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to providing support for people with ID.
“I have a family member with an intellectual disability so I know the difficulties a family faces when trying to find a qualified physician willing and educated to treat their loved one with a disability. And if it’s difficult to find care for someone with a disability in America, we know it’s even more difficult to receive care in other parts of the world. Special Olympics global reach and infrastructure made it the perfect partner for us to launch Healthy Communities to expand critical health services for those with ID on a global level, moving health care for people with ID out of tents at special events and into communities,” explains Golisano.
Golisano has committed more than $37 million to Special Olympics to train health professionals and provide year-round access to health care for people with ID. In addition to providing free health screenings, Special Olympics accelerates inclusive health in communities by empowering advocates and families, leveraging local resources, and engaging partners like universities and community-based health care organizations. Golisano’s unprecedented gift was recognized among 30 great givers and causes on Forbes' "Philanthropy's Big Bets for Social Change of 2015” that featured the most promising philanthropic gifts aimed at solving social problems in the U.S. and around the globe.
To recognize the progress being made around the world to increase access to essential health care for people with ID, the Golisano Global Health Leadership Award was established in 2017. It is Special Olympics’ highest honor for health partners.
At Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, the Golisano Foundation and Special Olympics honored seven healthcare organizations and professionals who are on the frontlines of bringing essential and often unprecedented health care services to people with ID. The honorees hail from the United States, Paraguay, Belgium, Jordan, Kenya, India, and China.
Over the past 22 years, the game has changed for people with ID, thanks to the commitment of Tom Golisano and the Golisano Foundation. With their support and the power of dedicated clinicians and volunteers, Special Olympics moves closer to ensuring inclusive health across the world.