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Feature Story

August 2017


New Health Research Conducted at Special Olympics

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By Deborah L. Vence

Besides competing in the Special Olympics Oregon Summer State Games in early July in Corvallis, the more than 2,000 participating athletes also helped to advance research into the health of people with intellectual disabilities.

Oregon State University hosted the Summer State Games, which featured sports such as track and field, bocce, golf and softball, with events split between Corvallis High School and the OSU campus.

In addition, the Special Olympics Oregon's Healthy Athletes program was a part of the Summer State Games, providing free health screenings for the athletes. The screenings involved six areas: Fit Feet, FUNfitness, health promotion, Healthy Hearing, Opening Eyes, and Special Smiles. Strength, flexibility, balance and endurance were tested. Athletes also were given a take-home program based on their results that aims to improve and encourage their participation in sports and recreational activities.

"There still is this misconception that if you have a disability, then you cannot be healthy," said Gloria Krahn, the Barbara Emily Knudson Endowed Chair in Family Policy Studies at Oregon State University, in a July press release. "I would've thought that after 25 years, we would be past some of that. Special Olympics is helping bring about that change."

Special Olympics Oregon hosts Healthy Athletes programs around the state regularly, and provides a program called Oregon Team Wellness for those with intellectual disabilities. The program incorporates incentives and rewards to reach benchmarks, with the ultimate goal of lifelong healthy choices and habits.

The program, which began in Oregon, has spread to other states in the Northwest as well. Researchers at OSU, including Alicia Dixon-Ibarra, a post-doctoral scholar in OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and Krahn, are working with Special Olympics to evaluate the program.

Dixon-Ibarra is working on the research and practical side of the games. The goal was to gather information used in research designed to improve the health of people with intellectual disabilities. The information gathered from the weekend of the Summer State Games was expected to go into one of the largest data sets for people with intellectual disabilities in the world, and show discrepancies between different countries and their health issues. For example, one area of the world could have issues relating to tooth decay, while another might have higher rates of obesity.

Dixon-Ibarra stated that a common misconception is the notion that people with intellectual disabilities can't be as healthy as those without.

However, helping to change attitudes, researchers stated, are programs such as the Special Olympics, which was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1986. Just 1,000 athletes competed in the first Special Olympics World Games. The Special Olympics now are in 169 nations and encourage more than 4 million people with developmental disabilities to be active and healthy.