Sustaining Athlete Health
Healthy Athletes® Program
The Healthy Athletes initiative is dedicated to providing health services and education to Special Olympics athletes, and changing the way health systems interact with people with intellectual disabilities.
With more than 1.2 million free health screening clinics in more than 100 countries, the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program has made Special Olympics become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.
Healthy Athletes in Massachusetts
Healthy Athletes is a global movement with local roots. In 1994, Dr. Steve Perlman, a Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine professor and longtime advocate of people with intellectual disabilities, founded the Special Smiles® initiative after working with the Shriver family as they struggled to find adequate dental care for Rosemary Kennedy – sister of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Dr. Perlman’s concerns about health disparities for people with disabilities prompted the research and studies that then became Healthy Athletes.
Since Dr. Perlman screened his first athlete with Special Smiles in the early 1990’s, Special Olympics Massachusetts has worked to expand the availability of Healthy Athletes screenings. Healthy Athletes now has a presence at almost all of Special Olympics Massachusetts’ athletic events, with free screenings offered in five of the seven Healthy Athletes disciplines.
In December of 2008, Special Olympics Massachusetts and the University of Massachusetts Medical School signed a groundbreaking affiliation agreement that created one of the first formal relationships between a disability services agency and a school of medicine. With this relationship and with the help of dedicated volunteers, the Special Olympics Massachusetts Healthy Athletes program is rapidly expanding.
Special Olympics Massachusetts puts a strong focus on athlete wellness including fitness and nutrition programs. Along with the fitness center and gym at the headquarters in Marlborough, MA, many Massachusetts fitness centers offer programs specifically for athletes, or provide memberships to athletes for free.
The Healthy Athletes Disciplines
The Healthy Athletes program currently offers health screenings in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry), FUNFitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology), MedFest (sports physical exam), Opening Eyes (vision) and Special Smiles (dentistry).
Fit Feet (podiatry)
Fit Feet was developed in collaboration with the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine to evaluate and screen foot and ankle deformities of athletes and to provide education in proper footwear and care of the feet and toes.
FUNfitness (physical therapy)
Originally developed by the American Physical Therapy Association, FUNfitness provides fitness screening and education services. Athlete flexibility, functional strength, balance and aerobic condition are assessed and physical therapy professionals advise on components of good fitness programs for risk prevention and make recommendations for optimal function in sports training and competition.
Health Promotion (nutrition, bone health, smoking cessation, sun safety)
Health Promotion focuses on educating athletes about healthy lifestyles and the facilitation of healthy choices. Because people with intellectual disabilities frequently have medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and they tend to develop these conditions at earlier stages of life, Health Promotion mainly focuses on nutrition and exercise, as well as bone health, smoking cessation and sun safety using interactive educational activities and motivational information to encourage behavior change.
Healthy Hearing® (audiology)
Certified audiologists supervise Healthy Hearing screenings, which provide external ear canal inspection, evoked otoacoustic emissions screening, tympanometry and pure tone screening for those with identified need. Healthy Hearing assesses athlete hearing, and reports to coaches and caregivers if any follow-up care is needed. Referrals may include earwax removal, further testing of middle ear problems or management of hearing loss. Individual molded ear plugs and referrals for hearing aids are also offered at many Healthy Hearing screening events.
MedFest® (sports physicals and general checkups)
MedFest allows Special Olympics programs to conduct standard sports physicals, which are required for participation in Special Olympics events. These screenings permit new athletes to register while also assuring the continued eligibility of existing athletes already participating in the year round sports training and competitions. MedFest has yielded an increase in athlete recruitment, retention and participation.
Special Olympics-Lions Clubs Opening Eyes® (vision)
The global partnership between Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International — an organization dedicated to global blindness prevention for more than 80 years — brings vision screenings to athletes worldwide. At Opening Eyes events, Special Olympics athletes receive extensive vision and eye health tests; refraction for those requiring further screening; prescription eyeglasses, if needed; prescription protective sports eyewear, if appropriate; and referral for follow-up care.
Special Smiles® (dental)
Special Smiles offers dental screenings, health education and prevention services, and refers athletes to potential sources of treatment and follow-up care. At a Special Smiles event, dental professionals provide oral screenings; oral health education and personal prevention products; and individually fitted sports mouth guards, if needed.