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.
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 followup 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 intellectual disabilities.
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 and year-round health support including:
- Club Fit programs
- Fit Families & Friends programs
- Athlete Personal Health Series
- Family Health Forums
- Coach Development Workshops
- Functional testing
- Health, fitness, and nutrition resources on the SOBC website
- Special Olympics Health Heroes and Health Messenger training to empower athletes to be health and nutrition advocates
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.
Additional health programming
Special Olympics BC achieved Healthy Community recognition in 2019. Today we are 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,
- and train and empower athlete leaders to be health and nutritional advocates for fellow athletes.
Special Olympics BC is also working with the Champions for Inclusive Health Stakeholder Coalition 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 ongoing support of our provincial partners and fundraising events, including the leading role of the Government of British Columbia and the generous support of provincial partner Prospera Credit Union.
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.”