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The Special Olympics oath: (McCallum, 2008)
Let me win,
but if I cannot win
let me be brave
in the attempt
Last summer, I had the opportunity to join physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, students and a few other members of the community who volunteered for a FUNfitness screening program in Everett during last year’s Special Olympics of Washington (SOWA) Summer Games. FUNfitness is part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes initiative to assess flexibility, strength, balance and aerobic fitness of the athletes. Introduced in 1997, FUNfitness is a fitness screening event that is part of the Healthy Athletes program and that was developed in collaboration with the APTA.
Lagging healthcare for those with intellectual disabilities culminated in this program of health education and prevention. Despite a mistaken belief that people with intellectual disabilities receive the same or better healthcare than others, they typically receive sub-standard care or virtually no health care at all. (Special Olympics Organization Health). In 2008, the global adult obesity rate was 12 percent compared to 30.9 percent for adults with intellectual disabilities. (Sunders M, 2008). Healthy Athletes has the world’s largest database of health data for people with intellectual disabilities.
During the Healthy Athletes screenings, Special Olympics athletes receive dental, vision, hearing, foot and general health screenings and receive recommendations for improvement after each screening. Physicians and healthcare professionals provide the screening services at tournaments at no cost to Special Olympics athletes. Special Olympics has set a goal of having 100 locations recognized as Healthy Communities by 2020. (Special Olympics Organization Health).
The Special Olympics movement was born out of the work of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a constant champion for those with intellectual disabilities. Today, the mission of Special Olympics Washington (SOWA) is “Special Olympics Washington BUILDS Communities and LEADS in Wellness through Sports and Inclusion. (SOWA website, 2017).
As a veteran orthopedic manual physical therapist I was confident that I could help somewhere, but this new adventure brought a little nervous excitement. I had no idea what I was expected to do and I was not sure what the athletes would expect from me. Special Olympics was something I learned about when I was a child. This early education left me with the impression that I would be working solely with an athletic, pediatric population with intellectual disabilities. Wrong. Well partially wrong. The athletes with intellectual disabilities span from individuals age 8 and upward into adulthood.
Under the direction of Natasja Ysambart, PT, DPT, SOWA Clinical Director, and Vicki Tilley, PT, GCS, Special Olympics consultant and trainer, volunteers were oriented to the FUNfitness screening stations: flexibility, functional strength, balance and aerobic capacity. While we waited for the athletes to finish competitions the Summer Games volunteers talked and learned from one another, particularly from the current UW student. We had fun running through the tests and it was nice to speak to a group that works with pediatric patient populations and those who rehabilitate patients with varied neurologic conditions. We also had a brother and sister team of high school volunteers, incredibly helpful as our extra hands.
The athletes that night shined – in their medals, in their dress attire (many of them stopped for screenings on their way to a big dance) and in their smiles. Once the process got rolling, it really became busy. Having so many athletes come for screening and education is inspirational. Earlier we ate alongside the athletes in their cafeteria dining room. One realizes quickly how much more can be done to educate and empower this population. At-risk populations are enabled to thrive with instruction and improvement of their awareness.
While we scrambled through the testing, I noticed that the athletes who received dental tools from the Special Smiles dentists were especially careful about saving their packages and educational materials as they worked through our busy screening stations. Behavioral change can occur when you educate and provide tools to those who want to improve their quality of life. The athletes were learning a great deal from what we tested and discussed that night. And likewise, I was learning from them.
During our testing I met a woman who was a fabulous athlete as proved during her fitness screening. She was also proud but competitive with her fiancé. She introduced the FUNfitness team to her fiancé, showing off her physical fitness while supporting his work on balance for his long-term health. After all, he is part of her future life.
Another athlete moved me during an educational discussion about stretching and her home exercise program compliance. She was not particularly fond of flexibility exercises. She told me about becoming a leader for the Special Olympic athletes. After some discussion we concluded that her role as a leader in the athletic community meant that she needed to be a strong example for others. This piece was inspiring and motivational to both of us; we all have to lead by example.
The athletes and volunteers that I met that day were truly motivating. Everyone was excited about their sports performance, the dance that was being held that night and their future.
The Special Olympics USA Games will take place in Seattle from July 1-6, 2018. Hundreds of volunteer providers will be needed to offer screenings for thousands of athletes who will come from around the country to compete. Visit our web page to find more information and for links to sign up to provide screenings or to sign up for other volunteer opportunities.
PTWA Vice President