Changing The Landscape Of Health For People With Intellectual Disabilities



The room quiets as Nathan McClain addresses a team of his peers about the importance of health and increasing awareness about fitness and sport at an April training in British Columbia.

McClain, a 22-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas, is among a growing group of self-advocates sharing the message about inclusive health for people with intellectual disabilities, or equitable access to quality health care, education, and services throughout communities.

McClain is an accomplished athlete who trains up to five times a week and focuses on fitness. He brought home two silver medals in swimming from the 2015 Special Olympics World Games held in Los Angeles, California, and  represented Team Arkansas at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, winning gold in the 50M swim.

He recently traveled to Special Olympics headquarters in Washington, DC, to receive official training on how to serve as a health ambassador. McClain’s passion is evident when he speaks about health and was displayed during his message to other athlete leaders interested in advocating for inclusive health in British Columbia.

McClain knows that in the workplace, without health, one cannot be productive. In school, without health, one cannot achieve. In sport, without health, one cannot perform. He is working to increase the understanding and awareness of the public about the barriers that people with intellectual disabilities face when seeking quality health care and education.

McClain is not alone in his efforts. He is part of a dedicated Special Olympics Arkansas group that is working to change the landscape of health for people with intellectual disabilities in the state.

Special Olympics Arkansas is building long-lasting and far reaching partnerships with organizations across the state that are focused on health. Special Olympics Arkansas is working across mainstream policies, statewide  programming and health provider training programs to normalize the inclusiveness of people with intellectual disabilities in Arkansas.

And it’s working.

Special Olympics Arkansas sought to collaborate with mission aligned organizations – frequently at the policy level – that often traditionally missed those with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics Arkansas has successfully engaged them around the mutually-beneficial nature of these partnerships.

For the past several years, Special Olympics has activated and educated organizations such as the Arkansas Department of Health, the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, the Department of Oral Heath, the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Department of Human Services, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Unity Health, Delta Dental, and the University of Arkansas Medical School, with thousands of people with intellectual disabilities benefiting.

Inclusive efforts initially undertaken by these organizations locally are now starting to be embraced throughout the state, and the effects of some efforts may soon be felt nationwide.

Camie Powell, the director of marketing and corporate relations for Special Olympics Arkansas, has been leading its health efforts since 2013. “Athletes strive for their personal best through competition; to get there that involves their diet, fitness and a total approach to wellness. Special Olympics Athletes are no different. We are proud to smash stereotypes in Arkansas by showing our communities our athletes can focus on health and in fact when empowered they will exceed expectations,” she shares.


One partnership that gained momentum last year alone that has the possibility of far-reaching impacts involved the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, which teaches cooking classes using a national Cooking Matters curriculum created by Share Our Strength. Over the past two years, Special Olympics Arkansas partnered with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance to offer adapted classes as an additional wellness opportunity for athletes. One weakness discovered in the national material was that the actual cookbooks were not tailored to people with intellectual disabilities. However, Share Our Strength is now working closely with Special Olympics Arkansas, with the hope that Share Our Strength commits to a nationwide partnership that starts with an easy-read cookbook. Special Olympics Arkansas has secured an additional partner and grant funding to help create an adapted set of materials to use locally and to provide to Share Our Strength for national consideration.

Special Olympics Arkansas also 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. Through the first part of 2016, Special Olympics trained 430 education professionals – including school health, physical education, administrators, and wellness committee members – at 31 events. These trainings led to a health and wellness curriculum adopted by several schools. A total of 25,000 students received health education in 2016 (15,000 SO athletes ages eight and up and 10,000 Unified Young Athletes ages 2-7). Special Olympics was  named the official professional development curriculum for inclusion of sport and health with the Department of Education for 2017.

Powell shares, “2016 was our groundbreaking year. Currently we are the 2017 curriculum supported by the Arkansas Department of Education. This means that we are promoted as the course to take for educators, and we are recommended by the Arkansas Department of Education. Our appointment as the official training for 2017 through the Department of Education’s curriculum department gives us more credence, and we believe this will lead to more implementation of this inclusive curriculum. We use a six-prong approach to ensure this is quality implementation (training, Frameworks infusion, Unified Champion Schools, Every Student Succeeds Act, wellness committee, and partner development). Moving forward, we hope to have additional influence through our work on a committee that is redesigning the Health and Physical Education frameworks and we are also petitioning hard to be the nonacademic piece of Arkansas’ Every Student Succeeds plan.”

Arkansas is just one of more than 80 Special Olympics locations throughout the world already paving the way for inclusive health through a focus on year-round health and wellness made possible by global, regional and local partnerships. So far, more than 170 organizations have partnered with Special Olympics in these efforts globally.

Special Olympics International is in a unique position to help catalyze partners to ensure services are reaching people with intellectual disabilities. As the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics International, along with its local chapters like Special Olympics Arkansas, is working to educate possible partners about the health disparities people with intellectual disabilities experience and collaborating with partners to ensure services are reaching people with intellectual disabilities.

Despite severe need and higher health risks, people with intellectual disabilities are often denied health services. There is often a misconception that the poor health of people with intellectual disabilities is due to their disability. Research has shown that it is in fact a result of a breakdown in health education, health promotion, and health care. Special Olympics global health program, made possible by the Golisano Foundation, offers health services and information to athletes in need. In all, more than 1.7 million free health examinations have been conducted in 134 countries through Special Olympics Healthy Athletes. The research continues to point to the need for a systematic approach to inclusive health that Special Olympics is striving for across the world.

“Being healthy made me a better athlete. I was able to train so much more, which allowed me to achieve more than I imagined. I feel better when I am fit. Special Olympics competitions are my focus. I know I can’t reach the next competition without a healthy mind and body. We need others partners to get involved with Special Olympics Health so all athletes have the support and opportunities that I have to achieve greatness” says McClain.•

Are you a part of an organization that could align with Special Olympics? Please connect with your local Special Olympics chapter or with Heather Harmer, the regional health manager for Special Olympics North America, at