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Promoting Health Beyond Sports

Diannah White is the Chief Communications Officer for SOMO. She has worked here 17 years and can be reached at This post is part of a series of posts that look back on SOMO’s 40-year history.

Excellence in life and in sports depends on good health. In Special Olympics, we take this very seriously. 

The Special Olympics movement was founded on a mission to provide sports training and athletic competition to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Our vision goes beyond the sports field and into improving the quality of life of our athletes. We’ve seen research that shows participation in our program leads to better performance at school, work and home. Now we know we can affect their health as well.

The doctors found that William was nearly legally blind. His eyesight was so bad that to improve his vision, he would need three different prescriptions, each one stronger than the other before he would be able to see correctly.”

Special Olympics, Inc. commissioned a Special Report on the Health Status and Needs of Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities. The report identified areas that, if made available, could improve the quality and length of life for Special Olympics athletes. The findings showed that as few as 30% of patients with intellectual disabilities receive care from medical specialists, even though it is estimated 92% of them need specialty care related to eyesight, oral health and heart disease.

Special Olympics, Inc. came up with a solution: Healthy Athletes was launched in 1996 as a means to promote better health for our athletes and bring attention to the lack of health care for those with intellectual disabilities.

Here at home, with the prompting of then-board chair Naomi Cupp of Columbia, we began offering Healthy Athlete initiatives in 2003. Since SOMO began offering the screenings, 541 dentists, hygienists, optometrists, opticians, audiologists, physical therapists, nurses and physical therapy assistants from all over Missouri have donated their time.

The Healthy Athlete disciplines we offer in Missouri include:

Special Smiles is a dental screening to detect cavities and other oral health issues. In 2010, 20% of athletes going through Special Smiles needed follow-up care because of pain or decay. In contrast, slightly more than 2% of all US employed adults reported that their last trip to the dentist was because of pain of a toothache. This initiative is made possible by the Missouri Dental Association.

One of the questions that the volunteer dentists ask each athlete is who their dentist is. More often than not they hear, “You are.” This is the only dental screening many of our athletes will get due to financial restrictions.

FunFitness is a screening to assess and improve flexibility, strength and balance. Athletes are moved through a variety of stations all run by volunteer physical therapists from the MO Physical Therapy Association. Athletes take exercise ideas home with them to incorporate into their training.

Health Promotion is a screening which looks at the overall health of the athlete. We own our own bone density machine to check for early stages of osteoporosis. As well, this discipline checks BMI and provides education on nutrition and sun safety. On average, 60% of our athletes are identified as obese and receive education to improve their diet.

Healthy Hearing is relatively new to our offerings but it has fast become a huge asset. Athletes receive a hearing test by trained audiologists. As may as 28% failed their hearing tests in 2011. This program is led by the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Missouri State University.

Opening Eyes is the most comprehensive screening we offer. This entire program is done in cooperation with Lions Club International. Coordinated by the Missouri Optometric Association, this is a complete vision screening like you would receive at a doctor’s office.

On average, 43% of SOMO athletes who have been through our Opening Eyes vision screening over the past eight years have needed and received a new or updated prescription and free eyewear. Athletes who don’t need prescription eyeglasses all get to take a free pair of designer sunglasses.

We have seen the most dramatic success with this program. William Johnson, an outfielder from Kansas City, is living proof. William would look one way and throw the ball the other way. His coach took him through our very first Opening Eyes screening. The doctors found that William was nearly legally blind. His eyesight was so bad that to improve his vision, he would need three different prescriptions, each one stronger than the other before he would be able to see correctly. Through the Opening Eyes program, he got three pairs of glasses and now when he looks one way he can also throw that way!

Fit Feet is a free podiatric screening for participating Special Olympics athletes evaluating ankles, feet, lower extremity biomechanics, and proper shoe and sock gear. We hope to host our first screening at our 2012 Summer Games.

As an added bonus, every $1 spent for Healthy Athlete Programs returns $5 in pro-bono services thanks to the great partnerships with health care professionals.  These screenings are provided through partnerships with licensed healthcare professionals at the Missouri Optometric Association, Missouri Dental Association, Missouri Physical Therapy Association and others. Special Olympics serves as the largest provider of health screenings in the world. 

We take the health of our athletes very seriously. Consider ways you can support Healthy Athletes. Professional healthcare volunteers are always needed as is funding of offset the costs to offer the screenings.