Building Healthy & Inclusive Communities


Throughout Healthy Communities, Special Olympics seeks to collaborate with mission-aligned organizations that often traditionally miss the population that Special Olympics serves. Special Olympics has set a goal of having 100 locations recognized as Healthy Communities by 2020.

When Kenny Canon’s pain resulted in a trip to the emergency room, his mother began to worry. “He had toothaches, was in a lot of pain and said he was dizzy,” said Kenny’s mother, Shirley. “He told me he thought he was going to die.”

Without dental insurance, the Canon family didn’t feel they could afford to have Kenny or his brother visit the dentist for regular cleanings or examinations.

Kenny was examined by volunteer dentists through a Special Olympics’ Special Smiles event, which provides dental hygiene and education to Special Olympics athletes. Kenny was flagged as needing urgent dental care and was referred to the Wisconsin Dental Association (WDA) Foundation’s Mission of Mercy. The WDA has partnered with Special Olympics Wisconsin since 2011 to provide free follow-up dental care to athletes like Kenny who are in critical need of treatment.

Despite having 12 teeth extracted, Kenny left the Mission of Mercy clinic without the pain that plagued him. A year after the extractions, Kenny received a full set of upper dentures at a Mission of Mercy event.

“I got tears in my eyes just remembering everything he had gone through,” said Shirley as she recalls the impact of Special Smiles. “It’s amazing what they do.”

Kenny’s journey may not have been easy, but with his new dentures, and increased confidence, he has something to smile about.

The lack of adequate healthcare services is all too common among many individuals with intellectual disabilities. Kenny is among the fortunate few to receive the quality and affordable follow-up care he needed; however, Special Olympics is working to change that.

Special Olympics – and its more than 4.7 million athletes worldwide – knows that in order to be a great athlete, you need to be a healthy athlete. However, for the millions of people with intellectual disabilities who lack access to quality health care, this is a major challenge. People with intellectual disabilities are among the most marginalized on earth facing isolation, intolerance and injustice. In most parts of the world they are not counted as part of society and therefore face gross neglect in basic human services, including health care.

Together, Special Olympics and partner organizations work to break down these barriers to inclusive health for people with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics announced a new global health strategy in 2016 that highlights and focuses on work with global partners, governments and policy-making organizations. Uniquely poised as the largest public health organization for people with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics Health programming, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, aims for inclusive health where people with intellectual disabilities have the same opportunities to be healthy as others.

In the 1990s, several concerned and passionate clinicians who specialized in treating people with intellectual disabilities worked with Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver to begin a revolutionary program called Healthy Athletes.

Dr. Steve Perlman, co-founder of Healthy Athletes with the late Dr. Paul Berman, shares, “In 1993, I had the opportunity to meet with Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Dr. Robert Cooke, who was the founder of Developmental Medicine. We discussed why the ability to access and receive quality health care was the most significant problem children and adults with intellectual disabilities faced. The lack of education, training, comfort level of health care providers, the failure of health insurance programs, psycho and social barriers all contribute to allowing people with intellectual disabilities to become the most ‘medically underserved’ population throughout the world.”

In 1997, Special Olympics began hosting Healthy Athletes events due to the fact that people with intellectual disabilities receive sub-standard care, or virtually no health care at all, despite a mistaken belief that people with intellectual disabilities receive the same or better health care than others.

Dr. Perlman, DDS, MScD, of Boston University, recalls, “The Shrivers had dedicated their lives to improving the quality of life for people with intellectual disabilities. They fought for educational opportunities, employment and safe housing. When they became aware of the existing health disparities, and with the support of Dr. Timothy Shriver, they realized that they had to become the advocates for health care as well. They had to take a stand on that issue for if not Special Olympics, who would? We envisioned the opportunity to provide health education, screenings, treatment and helping athletes access the health care system.”

That vision is becoming a reality.
Now more than 180,000 trained volunteer health professionals and students across the globe are trained through Healthy Athletes to treat people with intellectual disabilities.

In all, more than 1.7 million free health examinations have been conducted in 134 countries though Healthy Athletes. In the process, Special Olympics has become the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics offers health examinations in seven areas: Fit Feet (podiatry); FUNfitness (physical therapy); Health Promotion (better health and well-being); Healthy Hearing (audiology); MedFest (sports physical exam); Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes (vision); and Special Smiles (dentistry).

Over the years, Special Olympics health programs have improved access to healthcare and health promotion to Special Olympics athletes. In many cases, the programs have profoundly changed – or saved – their lives.

Moise Ahoussimou, a poor West African boy with an intellectual disability and next to no vision, is one example. While volunteering with the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, a doctor realized Moise had been blinded by cataracts. He was referred for a simple operation. Moise left his appointment with restored sight. He saw his father for the first time.

“I can see.” He grabbed his father’s hand. “Hey! Dad, I didn’t know you are that tall!”

As Healthy Athletes celebrates its 20-year anniversary, much can be said about its accomplishments. Yet, throughout the 20-year growth of Healthy Athletes, the noted health disparities reported across programming areas demonstrated a clear need to continue to work with partners and policymakers in order to impact systems and build awareness.

Research has shown that these disparities exist as a result of a breakdown in health education, health promotion, and health care (for more information, visit This can and should be addressed, and is what led to Special Olympics new global strategy aimed at addressing systems within and across communities.

That is why Special Olympics, working in close partnerships with organizations like the Golisano Foundation and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developed a program that addresses the severe health disparities faced by people with intellectual disabilities through immediate and long-term solutions called Healthy Communities.

A Healthy Community is a location officially recognized by Special Olympics for efforts in creating year-round access to quality health care. Through partnerships, follow-up care opportunities like Kenny’s, fitness and wellness programs, as well as robust Healthy Athletes programming, more than 80 Special Olympics locations throughout the world already are paving the way for inclusive health. Several now have achieved Healthy Community recognition in Arizona, Florida, Kazakhstan, Mexico, New Jersey, Romania, South Africa, Thailand and Wisconsin.

One example of how Healthy Communities can work toward inclusive health took place in Arkansas. In areas like Arkansas, Special Olympics health work has strong partnerships with statewide organizations like the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Department of Education, the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, the Department of Dentistry, the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Department of Human Services, and the University of Arkansas Medical School, with thousands of people with intellectual disabilities benefiting. To reduce health disparities experienced by people with intellectual disabilities, health opportunities, education and services needed to be inclusive at the individual level, throughout homes and communities, and reflected in public policy. With the active partnerships in Arkansas, systems are beginning to change. One example is in schools across the state.

Special Olympics Arkansas recently expanded its partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education when Special Olympics Arkansas became an official member of the Healthy Classroom Initiative through the School Health Department. Special Olympics Arkansas has trained 430 education professionals – which include school health, physical education, administrators, wellness committee members – at 31 events already this past year. These trainings led to a health and wellness curriculum adopted by several schools. A total of 25,000 students received health education (15,000 Special Olympics athletes ages eight and up and 10,000 Unified Young Athletes), and Special Olympics was named the official professional development curriculum for inclusion of sport and health with the Department of Education for 2017.

Throughout Healthy Communities, Special Olympics seeks to collaborate with mission-aligned organizations – frequently at the policy level – that often traditionally miss the population that Special Olympics serves. Special Olympics has set a goal of having 100 locations recognized as Healthy Communities by 2020.

“Our health work has become a movement,” shares Dr. Perlman. “As it has been said, Special Olympics is not only about sports, but we are in the business of changing people’s lives.” •


Everyone has a role to play in working toward inclusive and healthy communities. If you want to join the joy, help to change perceptions and eliminate stigma across societal levels, join Special Olympics as an athlete, a Unified teammate (an athlete without an intellectual disability), coach or volunteer. Visit to learn more.

If you are a clinician or student interested in joining Special Olympics’ health efforts, reach out to your local Program and ask how to get involved.

If you are interested in helping to spread awareness and recognize local champions, help celebrate the first-ever Golisano Health Leadership Award winners announced last year. These team members fulfill the goals, values and mission of Special Olympics health work. Learn more at

Are you part of an organization that provides health services and education? We need you, too. The cross-cutting partnerships in Arkansas are just one example of how inclusive health can work. Special Olympics has a need for your skills. It takes a dedicated team to make stories like Kenny’s a reality. Please join us as we work toward inclusive health across communities.