Special Olympians will help OSU researchers gain further health insights

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Tents go up in front of Reser Stadium in preparation for Special Olympics Oregon (photo: Theresa Hogue)

More than 2,000 athletes will descend on Corvallis on July 8 and 9, competing in the Special Olympics Oregon Summer State Games while also helping to further research into the health of people with intellectual disabilities.

“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. “I would’ve thought that after 25 years, we would be past some of that. Special Olympics is helping bring about that change.”

Oregon State is hosting the Summer State Games, which feature track and field, bocce, golf and softball, with events split between Corvallis High School and the OSU campus.

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

Special Olympics Oregon regularly hosts Healthy Athletes programs around the state.

Special Olympics Oregon also 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 started in Oregon, has spread to other states in the Northwest. 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.

She will gather information used in research designed to further improve the health of people with intellectual disabilities. All the information from the weekend will go into one of the largest data sets for people with intellectual disabilities in the world, and can show discrepancies between different countries and their health issues. One area of the world could have issues relating to tooth decay, for example, while another may have higher rates of obesity.

“I find this job really rewarding,” Dixon-Ibarra said. “I know there’s a huge need for health care and health promotion for this population based on my own research and the research of others in my area, and that this is a big need that we’re fulfilling with these programs.”

Dixon-Ibarra said a common misconception is that people with intellectual disabilities can’t be as healthy as those without. Also, Krahn notes that until relatively recently, trying to keep a person with a disability active and healthy fell solely on the family, without much help from school districts or other groups that organize sports and other recreational activities.

Helping to change attitudes, the researchers say, are programs like the Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1986. From a small beginning – just 1,000 athletes competed in the first Special Olympics World Games – the Special Olympics are now in 169 nations and encourage more than 4 million people with developmental disabilities to be active and healthy. Shriver will be posthumously honored for her work on July 12 at the 25th annual ESPYS on ABC.

Athletes and coaches will stay in OSU residence halls during the Summer State Games. Parking is free around Reser Stadium, and admission is free to all events. The public is invited to watch the athletes compete, and a complete schedule of the events can be found here.

~ Lanesha Reagan

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