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A "Wonder Drug" That Makes Everyone Healthier is in Short Supply for People with Disabilities

May 06, 2014

New data from the CDC show that barely half of adults with disabilities in the United States get regular physical activity. That's not the case for Special Olympics athletes. Training and competing in sports year round makes physical activity a part of their lives.


Half of U.S. Adults with Disabilities Get No Physical Activity

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that barely half of United States adults with disabilities take part in aerobic physical activity. The report, "Physical Activity is for Everybody," was posted on the CDC's Vital Signs website.

"Regular aerobic physical activity increases heart and lung function; improves daily living activities and independence; decreases chances of developing chronic diseases; and improves mental health," the CDC reports. That's where the emphasis that Special Olympics places on year-round sports participation pays off. 

Since 1968, Special Olympics has involved people with intellectual disabilities (ID) in competitive sports, a mission that gets people off the couch and on to playing fields. Now, more than 4.4 million people young and old with ID take part in training and competitions worldwide.

300x200-Kansas Bike4Life

A Special Olympics fitness initiative in Kansas led to its participants losing a total of 2,000 pounds. Athletes in the program have become more confident, happier, and healthier.

Special Olympics: The Power of Sports and Fitness

All Special Olympics athletes take part in sports, and that involves weekly training and at least one major competition per season. Special Olympics offers 32 official sports, and many of our athletes take part in sports year round. In the United States alone, 500,000 people with intellectual disabilities are involved with Special Olympics.

"The closest thing we have to a wonder drug."

“Physical activity is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Unfortunately, many adults with disabilities don’t get regular physical activity. That can change if doctors and other health care providers take a more active role helping their patients with disabilities develop a physical fitness plan that’s right for them.” The CDC supports Special Olympics initiatives that provide physical activity, health, and wellness to people with intellectual disabilities, and also make health systems and policies more responsive and efficient with respect to people with disabilities. Read more from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's report

Sports and Health Screenings Work Hand in Hand

Special Olympics also has a powerful program to address the health of our athletes with ID. It's called Healthy Athletes, and since it launched in 1997, we've done 1.4 million health examinations. And the health screenings are always free for our athletes. Every year, Special Olympics holds around 800 free examination clinics worldwide.

At many of those clinics, our volunteer health professionals find conditions that threaten an athlete's sight or hearing. Sometimes, athlete lives are saved when serious conditions are discovered and treated. But those dramatic stories are only part of the picture.


300 x 200 Tom Golisano at lectern

U.S. businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano as he announces his $12 million commitment to Special Olympics.

A Community Approach

That record of success and benefit led United States 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 initiative stresses a community-based year-round approach to health for our athletes. Since its launch, Healthy Communities initiative has resulted in health clinics in 54 new locations, providing care for more than 11,000 more athletes with intellectual disabilities, and health education for nearly 10,000 athletes, family members and coaches. 

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. Special Olympics has major offices in 170 countries around the world. Healthy Communities is being launched in seven countries (Mexico, Peru, Romania, Malawi, South Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand) and six U.S. states (Arizona, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, Wisconsin and New York). Healthy Athletes has provided free health screenings and products to athletes for 15 years.

300x200 Health care professionals in Panama

Volunteer healthcare professionals administer all of the free health examinations through Healthy Athletes.

Training Healthcare Professionals

Part of Healthy Communities also extends to educating health-care professionals. To address health-care disparities, specific training has been provided to 9,192 medical professionals, 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 98 organizations, universities and health-care providers at the local level to provide followup care free of charge to Special Olympics athletes.

Did You Know?

  • 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 100,000 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 90,000 pairs of prescription eyeglasses to athletes who needed them.

Miracles at Every Turn

Moise Ahoussimou, a poor West African boy with an intellectual disability and next to no vision, is one example. While volunteering at Healthy Athletes, 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!”

Miracles like Moise’s happen at every screening. 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.

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