AAP: Even among Special Olympians, poor health care is rampant

October 12, 2008

Two things happened at the 1995 Special Olympics that stayed with Timothy P. Shriver, PhD, its chairman and CEO. The first involved President Clinton, and a bunch of cameras.

Two things happened at the 1995 Special Olympics that stayed with Timothy P. Shriver, PhD, its chairman and CEO. The first involved President Clinton, and a bunch of cameras.

Clinton was speaking from far away, and some of the intellectually disabled (ID)athletes on the track were holding their freebie disposal cameras backwards. A professionalcameraman approached them, and helped them turn the cameras around. They surprisedhim by saying they were doing it on purpose. Backwards, the cameras worked asexcellent binoculars.

The second thing was just as humbling, but not in a good way. All the athleteswere given a health screening that year. It found 29% had undiagnosed vision problems,one third had untreated dental diseases, and 68% had gingivitis. Fifteen percent hasacute untreated pain or disease so severe they were immediately admitted to theemergency department.

How could this be? The Special Olympians are athletes, supposedly the healthiestof the ID population. The sad answer was, a medical professional admitted to Shriver,developmentally disabled people are given a “quick and dirty” standardof care. The well-natured ID patients usually don’t (or can’t) complain,so no one else bothered to care.

Since 1995, the Special Olympics has broadened its focus to include the healthof the ID community, not just the fun of friendly competition. Focuses have beengiven to feet, teeth, eyes, physical therapy needs, nutrition, smoking cessation,and hearing. Still, a recent study found worldwide rates of disease in the populationhas barely changed since 1995.

Shriver aired a clip from a recent comedy, “Tropic Thunder,” wherethe characters glibly used the word “retard” in a derogatory way.No one in the plenary session laughed. He said he wasn’t interested in being“the language police,” but did care about the “indifferent andneglect” behind the word. “Retard”--when used by kids,teachers, or pediatricians -- represented the idea that “this populationjust doesn’t count.”

Shriver challenged the group to make some big changes. The first was to altermedical school curriculums to focus more on ID, which he admitted was a tall order.While pediatricians are a happy exception, he said many doctors, when they getan ID patient, have no idea how to care for them. Continuing education shouldfocus on ID patients as well.

Finally, Shriver said to make the Special Olympics a place not just for thosewith ID, but everyone. There are close to three million Special Olympians worldwide,and just as many volunteers. Recruit young people without ID to help out, spendtime, and make friends with someone with ID. Inclusion isn’t a one-way street.