It Takes a Village

The mission of Special Olympics and the role we can all play in supporting the health needs of people with intellectual disabilities

by Kristin Hughes Srour

Through Special Olympics and properly trained doctors Maria can find hope for a full life.

At a Special Olympics camp held near Transylvania, Romania, a little girl sprints with a personality larger than life. Maria only moves at one speed—fast. The only words she knows in English, “yeah, baby!” are her standard response after you give her a high five. Even at age five, Maria is quite small on account of numerous health complexities, including an intellectual disability and a heart condition. After Maria’s birth, doctors counseled her mother to leave her daughter at the hospital to die because she would never walk or live a healthy life. Thanks to the unrelenting faith and love of her mother, today Maria is sharing her gifts with everyone who has the privilege to meet her, demonstrating her abilities wherever she goes.

But Maria is one of the lucky ones. In health care systems—weak and strong—barriers, stigma, discrimination, abuse and fear of people with intellectual disabilities prevail. This results in severe health injustice to some of the world’s most vulnerable, limiting them from reaching their full potential and contributing to their communities. Just some of the barriers people with intellectual disabilities face in accessing health services include: insufficient health care provider and worker training and education; diagnostic overshadowing, where health problems are falsely attributed to a person’s disability; inaccessible prevention education; limited ability to self-advocate for their needs; increased poverty; poor enforcement of disability laws providing support; and cultural beliefs about intellectual disabilities.

But we as congregations and community members, can and must do better in breaking down these barriers. An important first step to this is the recognition that every person has a gift. Without that common ground, we will never seek equality and we will not achieve health justice.

Health is a Human Right

According to the World Health Organization, health is “a state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Health and wellness are vital, impacting one’s quality of life and ability to contribute to society. Without good health, a person faces significant challenges to achieving a full life and being part of a community, family, school or workplace. The ability to be integrated into communities, families, schools and jobs is difficult for people with intellectual disabilities who already face enormous societal stigma and discrimination.

A person with a disability is not inherently unhealthy. Health status is affected by genetics, social circumstance, environment, individual behavior and health care access. However, people with intellectual disabilities have poorer health than the general population, including higher rates of obesity and premature death due lack of services, misdiagnosis and neglect. Their health issues are perpetuated by barriers to care, which often results in health issues going undetected. Further, people with intellectual disabilities are less physically active and are, therefore, at greater risk of chronic health conditions.

But when the doors to health care and wellness opportunities are open, people with intellectual disabilities have a life journey that allows them opportunities to be included and contributing members of society. Most importantly, it gives them a better chance at life and to share their gifts.

Accessing Health Services, Resources and Opportunities

Having access to health services begins a path toward inclusion in society. Special Olympics uses sport to open hearts and minds toward people with intellectual disabilities and create inclusion. In more than 170 countries, Special Olympics is providing sport and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to showcase their abilities. Health is key to this mission. To achieve optimal athlete performance, a Special Olympics athlete must be healthy. Over the past 18 years, Special Olympics has emerged as the largest public health program for people with intellectual disabilities by working through grassroots health interventions, offering free health exams at Special Olympics competitions and promoting ongoing access to quality, community-based health care services to close the gap on the health disparities.

Special Olympics health work has unveiled that lack of access to health care and poor health status of people with intellectual disabilities is reflected in poor health outcomes and premature mortality. Special Olympics findings align with a three-year study led by researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom in conjunction with the country’s National Health Service. The 2013 results indicated residents with intellectual disabilities died an average of 16 years prematurely—not because of chronic disease or lifestyle issues, but because of conditions that went undetected or untreated.

Special Olympics is striving to reduce disparities, change health systems and create communities where quality health care is accessible year round for people with intellectual disabilities. This work begins with opening people’s hearts and minds to the gifts that people with intellectual disabilities have and dispelling stigma and discrimination. Another critical aspect of community support is educating family and community members on how to care for people with intellectual disabilities, advocate for them and ensure opening opportunities to support them.

Training health care professionals and students on how to work with people with intellectual disabilities is critical to changing health systems and improving access. To date, Special Olympics has trained more than 136,000 health care providers and students across the globe, but so many more need to be reached. Congregations and community members can contribute by providing accessibility to people with intellectual disabilities. This means regional, national, state or provincial and local organizations, health care providers—everyone has a role to play and responsibility to do so.

To some, it may be surprising that doctors would tell Maria’s mother she would not amount to anything. Fortunately, Maria’s mother saw her gifts and eventually found a community of support through Special Olympics and doctors who were properly trained and willing to see someone with a disability. As a result, she can help her child grow, finding hope for a full life for Maria.

Yet, so many other children like Maria cannot count themselves as lucky.

This unrivaled instrument of health, fulfillment and community building is a powerful tool for fighting some of our most stubborn and acute social challenges. One day, Maria is discriminated against for her disabilities; the next she is sprinting across a room at camp, ready to play, share her infectious personality and reveal her gifts. She has found a pathway to health, to belonging, to fun. She has shown her community that she is capable of achieving, and, as a result, has gained confidence in herself. Every person deserves the chance to demonstrate individual gifts, and it begins with being healthy and the support of a person’s “village.”


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