Beyond sports, how the Special Olympics serves its athletes

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Photo: Special Olympics

The Special Olympics World Games kick off Saturday July 25 with 6,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities competing in sports ranging from swimming to rollerskating.

There are also 30,000 volunteers who are helping to run the event. Organizers say it’s the biggest sporting event to be held in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympics.

Here’s a schedule.

KCRW spoke with Jeff Carr, Chief Operating Officer of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games about the event and the work the organization does to help the athletes get access to better health care.

KCRW: When it comes to the goal of the Special Olympics, you bring people from around the world together, just like the Olympic games, but is there more to it than that?

The Olympics are really about just an elite sports competition for the best athletes in the world. I think for the Special Olympics, it’s certainly a sports competition, it’s all about, how do we create an opportunity for athletes to compete? But it’s really about more than that, it’s about, how do we create the awareness through the power of sport? And our athletes are competing to create the awareness that leads to acceptance and inclusion because our athletes are probably some of the most marginalized peoples around the world. In other countries, even in this country, athletes who are intellectually disabled are two and a half times more likely to be bullied in school than people without intellectual disabilities.

And so what we hope to do is use this global stage and platform here in Los Angeles to really show people that our athletes are amazing and not just focus on their disability, but really hone in and focus on their abilities. Special olympic athletes are twice as likely to be employed as people with intellectual disabilities who don’t participate in special olympics, and they’re also also twice as likely to live on their own. I think that’s the because of their training that goes on on a regular basis. Their health outcomes are also twice as good as people with intellectual disabilities who don’t participate in Special Olympics, so I think Special Olympics and sports give them the opportunity to really grow and blossom. grow.

KCRW: As part of the Special Olympics this summer you are providing the athletes with certain types of free medical exams and medical services, what kind of services are available and how significant is this for the athletes?

Special Olympics, even though it’s a sports organization, it’s actually the largest provider of health services for people with intellectual disabilities in the world, which says a little bit about the state of affairs for people with intellectual disabilities and their access to health care.  Special Olympics over the years has developed a program called Healthy Athletes, which is essentially a screening program. We will actually screen every athlete in six different disciplines. We’ll screen their eyes and if they need glasses, we have a lens and a frame partner. We’ll actually grind lenses and glasses for them right there. We’ll do dental screenings if they need dental care. Audiology programs to test their ears and if they need hearing aids, we’ll provide them with hearing aids. It’s another way to provide an opportunity for our athletes to live healthy lives. It’s become a avery important part of the program in the Special Olympics movement.