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Healthcare Professionals Partner to Serve Special Olympic Athletes at Fall Games

Health professionals and volunteers from across the state gathered at Champlain Valley Union High School to provide comprehensive health screenings for children and adults with intellectual disabilities at the Special Olympics Vermont Fall Games on October 20th. A unique partnership between the University of Vermont Health Network and Special Olympics Vermont allowed over one hundred athletes to receive free health screenings in between their sports competitions.

Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® is dedicated to providing health services and education to athletes with intellectual disabilities and improving the way health systems interact with this population. Here in Vermont, Special Olympics athletes have access to annual dental, audiology, vision, health promotion (nutrition), and physical therapy screenings and education at no cost. Nutrition and physical therapy screenings were offered at the Fall Games. 133 athletes were screened in Health Promotion and 57 completed the physical therapy screening. Over 75 health professionals and students from the University of Vermont College of Nursing and Health Sciences, the University of Vermont Medical Center, and other health organizations volunteered their time to conduct the 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 they are also more likely to experience multiple chronic conditions. Globally, on an average team of 10 Special Olympics athletes 4 have untreated tooth decay, 4 need glasses, 3 fail a hearing test, 2 have low bone density, and 6 are overweight or obese.

This program also provides training for medical students and practitioners. Special Olympics Inc. reports that 84% of health care providers feel better prepared to treat people with intellectual disabilities as a result of volunteering with Special Olympics Healthy Athletes. “A big part of Healthy Athletes is educating current and future medical and healthcare professionals about providing care to this population,” says Dr. Stephen Contompasis, Special Olympics Vermont Board Member and specialist in behavioral and developmental pediatrics. “We know that 52% 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.”

In conjunction with these health screenings, Special Olympics Vermont offers a Farm to Athlete program. In 2015, Special Olympics Vermont was the first Special Olympics program to pilot a Farm to Athlete initiative. As part of an ongoing commitment to improve the lives of Special Olympics athletes, the Farm to Athlete program brings fresh, healthy meal options to competition events. The goals of this program are to provide foods that are nutritionally rich, to decrease the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among the athlete population, to educate athletes, families, coaches, and volunteers about healthy eating habits, and to support the community that so generously supports Special Olympics Vermont by purchasing food that is locally produced using sustainable and organic methods whenever possible. The UVM Health Network partnership also supports the Farm to Athlete Program.

“Athlete health is a priority for Special Olympics Vermont,” says Lisa DeNatale, Interim President and CEO of the statewide organization. “Through partnerships with the University of Vermont Health Network, Sugarsnap Catering, and other health champions in our state, we are working to develop and improve systems that support positive health outcomes and quality of life for our athletes.”

For more information about Special Olympics Healthy Athletes and to get involved visit: https://specialolympicsvermont.org/wellness-programs/healthy-athletes/.

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