Using Health Data at World Games to Propel the Special Olympics Movement

Special Olympics has been collecting data on the health of its athletes since the mid-1990s. In response to seeing the poor health of athletes and based on emerging literature, clinicians began conducting hearing and vision exams, uncovering the significant health disparities that people with intellectual disabilities (ID) face. Since then, over 1.7 million examinations have been conducted in more than 134 countries.

When we think about the impact Special Olympics has on its athletes and what these numbers really mean, we unveil the true power of data and statistics in mobilizing the Special Olympics movement and in bringing about real cultural change.

At the local level, it’s easy to see the critical role data and statistics play: based on tailored data, Programs can highlight specific athlete needs to donors and secure funds to continue providing programming. For example, a Program can implement one of several fitness models if the data reveal high rates of obesity. Similarly, regional-level data allow both the regions and Programs to identify needs and develop creative solutions to meet those needs on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, Programs can compare their statistics to regional neighbors, and try to replicate successes based on other countries’ solutions to similar issues.

The Special Olympics health strategy calls for a concerted effort to expand programming and garner support from partners to provide #InclusiveHealth. With each new data observation, we learn more about the health of people with ID, including the unique challenges athletes and families face as they navigate the complexities of the fragmented healthcare system. Each additional piece of that puzzle allows the world to better understand an entire population of people that are often invisible in censuses and mainstream datasets. With this greater understanding, we can work toward achieving #InclusiveHealth. The more information we have, the better we can advocate for and with people with ID.

As they proudly display what inclusion looks like, the upcoming Special Olympics World Games present an ideal opportunity to learn even more about the global picture of health services Special Olympics athletes are receiving in their respective countries around the world. The need for data before, during, and after World Games may be more difficult to conceptualize but it is just as critical. It is the perfect time for our organization to reflect upon its mission and answer the question, “Are we doing what we set out to do?” While the health data collected at World Games cannot wholly answer this, it can provide insight into the health status of our athletes and allow us to recognize the significant work that still needs to be done for the population who have intellectual disabilities.

Beyond health, the data we collect at World Games allow us to measure attitude change and community participation in our host countries. This outcome data can inform the trajectory of culture change: it helps us build capacity for evaluation and establish a knowledge base, it informs our ability to craft campaigns to address attitudes (such as through Unified Sports), and then it allows for attitude change to actually occur.

We also know that World Games not only changes the attitudes of those who attend the Games, but it has an impact on the host city as well. One study that looked at attitude change before and after World Games in China, for example, found improved perceptions among Chinese youth about the abilities of students with ID. They were also significantly more willing to interact with a student with ID inside and outside of school.[1] This is how the Special Olympics movement expands and sustains momentum.

In just a few weeks, this opportunity for data collection will be realized once again at the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria. The movement is evolving alongside technology: for the first time in Special Olympics history, screening data will be recorded entirely on electronic tablets and stored in a new cloud-based system. Summary reports of health screenings that will take place at the Games will be disseminated on a nightly basis, providing regions and Programs an instantaneous snapshot of the health of their athletes. As Special Olympics grows and as we improve our ability to collect better data on the health status of people with ID, the closer we become to achieving real inclusion and justice.

[1] Norins, J., Parker, R. C., & Siperstein, G. N. (2006). Impact of the Special Olympics world games on the attitudes of youth in China. Washington, DC: Special Olympics, Inc.

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