Special Olympics athletes receive health screenings by volunteers

Courtesy photo
Volunteer health practitioners performed health screenings including hearing and vision exams for Special Olympics athletes at the recent summer games at the University of Vermont.

Health professionals and volunteers from across New England provided comprehensive health screenings for children and adults with intellectual disabilities at the Special Olympics Vermont Summer Games at the University of Vermont last month.

A unique partnership between the Vermont State Dental Society and Special Olympics Vermont allowed hundreds of athletes to receive dental screenings, and a Special Olympics partnership with the Lions Club International supported vision care for the participants. In total, 118 volunteers provided 563 exams in one day.

The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program is dedicated to providing health services and education to athletes with intellectual disabilities and improving the way health systems interact with this population. In Vermont, Special Olympics athletes have access to annual dental, audiology, vision, nutrition, and physical therapy screenings and education at no cost.

At the Special Olympics Vermont Summer Games at UVM last month, dental, vision, and hearing exams were offered to Special Olympics athletes. The Special Olympics Special Smiles component of Healthy Athletes provides dental screenings, oral hygiene education, and follow-up care to athletes. Through Opening Eyes and Healthy Hearing, athletes also have access to vision and audiology screenings. Custom glasses, sunglasses, and hearing aids are made available as needed at no charge to the athlete.

All exams are offered by health professionals or students who volunteer their time and skills. Sponsors included Northeast Delta Dental, Timberlane Dental Group, Primmer, Piper Eggleston & Cramer PC, NFP Insurance, ReSound Hearing Instruments, and MyEyeDr.

This unique partnership also brings new healthcare volunteers and practitioners to Vermont. Having been involved with this partnership for more than a decade, the Vermont State Dental Society recruits volunteer dental professionals and current dental students to conduct the screenings.

This year, 73 volunteers including 17 students from out-of-state representing Tufts University, Boston University, the University of Buffalo, and the University of New England administered the screenings. Vermont-based volunteers included 19 dentists, students from Vermont Technical College, UVM, and Northeast Delta Dental employees.

Vaughn Collins, executive director of the Vermont State Dental Society said he is pleased with the Special Olympics partnership. In addition to helping athletes with intellectual disabilities understand the importance of dental hygiene and routine check-ups, he said, the Dental Society recruits young talent to Vermont which supports the residency program.

Of the 435 athletes competing in the 2018 Special Olympics Vermont Summer Games, 242 received a dental screening and 17 of those were identified as needing urgent follow-up dental care. 153 received an audiology screening, and 168 received a vision screening. This represents a 23 percent increase over the previous year and an all-time record for Healthy Athletes screenings.

Despite a common perception that people with disabilities have better access to health care, Special Olympics Inc. reports that people with intellectual disabilities are more likely than the general population to experience chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, and are also more likely to experience multiple chronic conditions. Globally, on an average team of 10 Special Olympics athletes, four have untreated tooth decay, four need glasses, three fail a hearing test, two have low bone density, and six are overweight or obese.

Sue Minter, Vermont Special Olympics president and CEO said athlete health is a priority and partnerships with the Vermont State Dental Society and the Lion’s help develop and improve systems that support positive health outcomes and quality of life for athletes.

This program also provides training for medical students and practitioners. Special Olympics Inc. reports that 84 percent of health care providers said they feel better prepared to treat people with intellectual disabilities as a result of volunteering with Special Olympics Healthy Athletes.

Dr. Stephen Contompasis, Special Olympics Vermont Board Member and specialist in behavioral and developmental pediatrics said that 52 percent of medical school deans and students report that graduates are not competent to treat people with intellectual disabilities. “Special Olympics Healthy Athletes reverses that trend here in Vermont and around the world,” he said.

Healthy Athletes volunteers are needed for physical therapy and nutrition screenings for the 2018 Special Olympics Vermont Fall Games on Oct. 20. More information is online at specialolympicsvermont.org/wellness-programs/healthy-athletes.

Liza Reed is marketing and partnerships director for Special Olympics Vermont.

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