CDC and Special Olympics: Inclusive Health

Crystal Womack, Special Olympics Health Messenger

People with intellectual disabilities (ID)—difficulty with thinking, learning, remembering, and reasoning—experience poorer access to quality health care and have poorer health outcomes than people without ID.1 Learn how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working with Special Olympics to improve the health of people with ID.

Although progress has been made through federal policies, such as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), that have provided people with disabilities better access to buildings, transportation, and employment, people with disabilities continue to have differences in health outcomes compared to those without disabilities.2 For instance, people with intellectual disabilities (ID) are more likely to have difficulty receiving quality healthcare services, often receiving fewer preventive check-ups, such as cancer screenings.1,2 People with ID, their caregivers, and health care providers may need to work together closely to make sure long-lasting conditions (e.g. diabetes, heart disease and epilepsy), common among this population are managed successfully.

CDC and Special OlympicsExternal have joined forces to address these challenges, break down barriers to inclusive health services and programs, challenge misperceptions, eliminate stigma, and improve the health of people with ID. Together, CDC and Special Olympics are working toward a future in which all children and adults with ID have the ability to get healthcare services throughout their lives and are included in programs that promote long-term health.

Healthy Athletes

The Healthy AthletesExternal program was created by Special Olympics to help meet the health needs of their athletes during local, state, regional, national, and international events. Officially launched in 1997, Healthy Athletes events are conducted in a welcoming, fun environment, and are designed to educate athletes on how to make healthy lifestyle choices and to identify health problems that may need additional follow-up. Currently, Healthy Athletes offers health testing in eight areas:

  • Fit Feet (podiatry);
  • FUNfitness (physical therapy);
  • Health Promotion (better health and well-being);
  • Healthy Hearing (audiology);
  • MedFest (sports physical exam);
  • Opening Eyes (vision);
  • Special Smiles (dentistry); and
  • Strong Minds (emotional well-being).

Since 2002, Special Olympics has partnered with CDC to conduct approximately 1 million Healthy Athlete tests in the United States at approximately 5,000 events

Through this testing, CDC has also been able to support specialized training for more than 100,000 U.S. healthcare professionals on how to provide care for people with ID in their practices.

Heather's Story

Special Olympics USA athletes are looking forward to joining more than 7,000 Special Olympics athletes, 2,500 coaches and delegates, 170 nations, and more than 20,000 volunteers at the 2019 Special Olympics World GamesExternal in Abu Dhabi (March 14 – 21, 2019). One of those athletes is Heather Zwingelberg.

Heather started life as a 1-lb 6-oz preemie. She, along with her twin sister Amanda, spent months in the hospital enduring several procedures and surgeries. That first year of life, she proved she was a real fighter.

Heather has always tried her best to take ownership of her health, and running has been a big part of that. She first learned that she loved to run in the fourth grade, going on to run cross country and track & field in both junior and senior high school. During her senior year, Heather ran on the first unified track & field team for Mount Vernon High School, in Atlanta, GA. She then joined Special Olympics in 2015, and has competed ever since.

Heather stays in shape by walking with a local fitness club. As a Health Messenger for Special Olympics, she also coaches these 1-hour walks twice a week so that other people in the community, with and without disabilities, stay motivated to get fit.

“Being fit is important to me, and I help my family and friends by getting them to walk with me,” she said.

CDC would like to thank Heather, and our partner, Special Olympics, for sharing this story with us.

The Advent of Healthy Communities and Inclusive Health

CDC also supports Special Olympics through the Healthy CommunitiesExternal program, which recognizes individual Special Olympics programs for offering year-round access to quality health care. Through partnerships with fitness and wellness programs, as well as healthcare providers and other local organizations, people with ID are able to get the resources and services they need to stay healthy. The purpose of the Healthy Communities program is to connect people with ID to health testing, education, and referrals for follow-up health care in their local communities. Healthy Communities was launched in 2012 with six Special Olympics programs being piloted to help strengthen the Healthy Communities model. Currently, 28 Special Olympics programs in the United States are recognized as Healthy Communities.

U.S Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, at the join AADMD/Special Olympics Inclusive Health Summit for the launch of Center for Inclusive Health.

U.S Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, at the joint AADMDExternal/Special Olympics Inclusive Health SummitExternal for the launch of the Center for Inclusive Health (2018).

Inclusive Health

Inclusion means understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society, as well as making sure everyone is able to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires.

To prevent illness and promote healthy behaviors and safety for people with disabilities, CDC is committed to disability inclusion in public health programs, working to eliminate barriers to health care and improve the ability to get routine preventive services. As part of this work, CDC supports Special Olympics’ Center for Inclusive HealthExternal. This Center provides online resources, training, and technical assistance for partners who are working to lessen the health disparities faced by people with ID.

Join the inclusion revolution by learning more about the health of people with ID and supporting their inclusion in the health programs and services they need to stay healthy!

  1. Krahn GL, Hammond L, Turner A. A cascade of disparities: health and health care access for people with intellectual disabilities. Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Rev. 2006;12(1):70-82.
  2. Krahn GL et al. Persons with disabilities as an unrecognized health disparity population. Am J Public Health, 2015;105 Suppl 2:S198-206. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.302182.
Page last reviewed: March 13, 2019