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Providing Health Services Worldwide for the Most Underserved

What if you could help millions of people worldwide who suffer needlessly from chronic pain and disease, blindness and hearing loss, shortened life span, and other health conditions? That's what we aim to do every day. 

Special Olympics Health Programs

With more than 1.6 million free health examinations conducted in more than 130 countries, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® program offers health services and information to athletes in dire need. In the process, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.

Over the years, Special Olympics health programs have improved the health of our athletes, and in many cases, profoundly changed--or saved--their lives.

Moise Ahoussimou, a poor West African boy with an intellectual disability and next to no vision, is one example. While volunteering with the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, a doctor realized Moise had been blinded by cataracts. He was referred for a simple operation, and Moise left his appointment with restored sight. He saw his father for the first time. “I can see." He grabbed his father’s hand. “Hey! Dad, I didn’t know you are that tall!”

Above: Handwashing in Africa

A growing part of Special Olympics health outreach brings a year-round focus on healthy habits. At a school in Lilongwe, Malawi, students learned how to use a tippy tap, a low-cost way to allow people without plumbing to wash their hands effectively. Good hand washing helps keep diseases from spreading. The lesson was presented by Special Olympics in partnership with Catholic Relief Services.

Hadi Rahami, a Special Olympics powerlifter from Iran, runs in place to measure his heart rate at a health clinic during the Middle East-North Africa Regional Games in Cairo, Egypt.
At the same regional games in Egypt, Hadi Rahimi competed in powerlifting. Special Olympics coaches ensure athletes know their sports and train well, while Special Olympics Health provides the additional insights and information needed to lead healthy lives.

Healthy Athletes

Officially launched in 1997, Healthy Athletes organizes its events in a welcoming, fun environment. Its events educate athletes on healthy lifestyle choices and identify problems that may need additional follow-up. 

  • Despite a mistaken belief that people with intellectual disabilities receive the same or better health care than others, they typically receive sub-standard care, or virtually no health care at all. 
  • Healthy Athletes has the world's largest database of health data for people with intellectual disabilities. 
  • Through Healthy Athletes, more than 136,000 health care professionals have been trained to treat people with intellectual disabilities. These health care professionals provide improved care to millions. Special Olympics has given out more than 100,000 pairs of prescription eyeglasses to athletes who needed them.

Seven Disciplines

We offer health examinations in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNfitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes (vision) and Special Smiles (dentistry). 

A Chance to Perform Miracles

Miracles happen at every Special Olympics health clinic. A volunteer dentist from California, USA saved athlete Dustin Plunkett's life by finding his 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. All Special Olympics Egypt athletes now receive medical exams and follow-up care.
Special Olympics Mexico is part of the Healthy Communities program. Karina Bates, a Special Olympics athlete in Merida, Mexico, has been learning how to shop for and prepare healthful meals.

Healthy Communities

Special Olympics Programs in eight countries (Mexico, Peru, Romania, Malawi, South Africa, Malaysia, Thailand and Kazakhstan) and six U.S. states (Arizona, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, Wisconsin and New York) are piloting Healthy Communities. More than 13,000 athletes participated in wellness opportunities and 3,000 athletes received follow-up care after a Healthy Athletes exam through Programs recognized as Healthy Communities.

Healthy Communities

The Special Olympics Healthy Communities initiative takes the principles of the Healthy Athletes program and expands them from a series of single events to a steady presence in the lives of our athletes and their families that includes a focus on follow-up care, wellness opportunities, access and education. The Healthy Communities program is clearly demonstrating that health needs to remain a priority for the Special Olympics movement.

To address health-care disparities, Special Olympics has trained more than 136,000 health-care professionals and students, enabling them to return to their communities with increased knowledge of people with intellectual disabilities and a greater willingness to have them as patients. New partnerships have also been created with more than 200 organizations, universities and health-care providers at the local level.
U.S. businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano as he announces his $12 million commitment to Special Olympics.

A Generous Donation

That record of success and benefit of Special Olympics’ health program led U.S. businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano to commit $12 million to expand Special Olympics’ health-related services and launch a new Healthy Communities initiative in 2012. The donation was announced by former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative event in New York City.

Slideshow: Our Health Work Worldwide

  • Jessica Licata, a swimmer from New Jersey, is a stronger competitor because of the prescription swim goggles she wears. A free Special Olympics Healthy Athletes vision screening led the way to faster times. Improving the health of our athletes with intellectual disabilities is only one benefit of the program.
  • As many as 200 million people worldwide have an intellectual disability.  Much of this population has little or no access to proper health care, even in nations with extensive health care systems or services for people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Special Olympics learned the extent of the problem among its athletes in 1995, the first year it offered free health screening at its World Games. There, 15% of the athletes screened had such dramatic health conditions that they had to be referred to the emergency room for urgent care.
  • Worldwide, most people with intellectual disabilities receive inadequate or no healthcare. Special Olympics has launched a new initiative called Healthy Communities, a revolutionary program that will make reach more people with intellectual disabilities more frequently.
  • U.S. businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano (far right) committed $12 million to enable Special Olympics to make meaningful year-round changes in the lives of our athletes through the Healthy Communities program.
  • Healthy Athletes screenings have found that Special Olympics athletes are at increased risk of multiple, secondary health issues: 39% have obvious, untreated tooth decay; 36% of adults are obese; 26% fail hearing tests; and 20% have low bone density.
  • As a sports organization, Special Olympics was in a unique position to help, and in 1997 opened a whole new world of health care to people with intellectual disabilities and their families worldwide by founding its Healthy Athletes program, offering free health screenings, services, and education.
  • The challenge that the Healthy Communities initiative is taking on is addressing the care after the free health screenings occur. It's about education, staying in touch and helping identify service providers. Learning the habit of hand-washing in Malawi and other places helps slow the spread of infectious diseases.
  • Special Olympics swimmer Karina Bates of Merida, Mexico, prepares lunch for her family. Eating nutritious food is one way our athletes stay healthy and strong. Healthy Communities provides education in food selection and preparation that promote health.
  • Healthy Athletes screenings by volunteer health professionals are offered under seven disciplines; Vision (Opening Eyes); Dentistry (Special Smiles); Podiatry (Fit Feet); Physical Therapy and general fitness (FUNfitness); Audiology (Healthy Hearing); Healthy Lifestyle (Health Promotion); and Medical/Sports Physicals (MedFest).
  • Victor Ifesinachi is a basketball player from Nigeria and received a free hearing aid at Healthy Athletes. Before, he never spoke, and the only way for him to communicate with his coach was to read lips and use the limited sign language that he knew. Immediately after getting his hearing device, he started talking and joking with his teammates. 
  • Offered in a fun, welcoming environment, Healthy Athletes screenings remove the anxiety and trepidation people with intellectual disabilities often experience when faced with a visit to a doctor.
  • Healthy Athletes has provided more than 1.6 million free health screenings in more than 130 countries, and thanks to generous support from sponsors like Lions Clubs International and dozens of others, given out more than 90,000 eyeglasses and trained 100,000 health professionals to better treat people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Hicham Novara, a swimmer from Morocco, had such poor vision, he was essentially blind. He had to hold his cell phone two inches from his eye to see it. But by the time he finished his eye exam and was wearing corrective lenses, he was proudly showing the volunteers pictures of his friends on his phone – while holding it at arm’s length.
  • With Healthy Athletes, Special Olympics has become the largest public health organization specifically for people with intellectual disabilities and maintains the largest database of health information for people with intellectual disabilities in existence.
  • Many volunteer health care providers are so impacted that they drastically alter the way they work, teach and conduct research to be more inclusive of taking on patients with intellectual disabilities. This has resulted in increased access to care.
  • Healthy Athletes doesn’t simply benefit Special Olympics athletes.  By training health care professionals worldwide who then go back to their practices with increased knowledge of and compassion for people with intellectual disabilities, Healthy Athletes is improving the care received by millions.
  • The success of Healthy Athletes depends on the support of the volunteer network of health care providers and community members offering opportunities of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. Together, we can all create a legacy of care. Learn more about Healthy Athletes.
  • Special Olympics is meeting with other organizations and individuals who share the idea that people with intellectual disabilities deserve full access to quality healthcare. The need is enormous but Special Olympics is determined to meet it.