Promoting Health for Individuals with Mental Retardation

Article excerpt

As soon as you have children, make sure they have the best healthcare available. Every child is different, but if you take a proactive stance in promoting healthcare to ALL children, future problems can be eliminated, and they will have a lot more to offer to the community," said Loretta Claiborne, Special Olympics athlete and spokesperson.

Claiborne was one of a group of distinguished witnesses with expertise in the fields of mental retardation, healthcare, and physical fitness who gave testimony on March 5 as part of the Special Olympics presentation of its special report before the US Senate on the health status of people with mental retardation.

In relating her personal experiences, Loretta Claiborne told the Committee that in addition to the regular childhood illnesses, she had some serious health problems as a child, including a bad foot that barely allowed her to walk, let alone run. She also had severe problems with her eyes, which made it difficult for her to understand what was going on around her. She was shy and withdrawn, and did not speak until the age of 4. She was fortunate, however. Her mother and other people who cared about her fought to get her the corrective care she needed.

Clearly, that has turned out to be a good investment for her and a good investment for society. Today, Claiborne is a recognized athlete and her story has motivated others. She is a health "addict" and runs and exercises dally. She still has health challenges, which require her to fight the system every time she seeks medical attention. Her ailments are not related to mental retardation; they are common medical problems that do not require doctors to be experts in caring for a patient with special needs. They are medical problems that simply require a doctor to want to treat a person with disabilities.

"Not all people with mental retardation necessarily have the support system and advocates that I had. And unfortunately, people with mental retardation still face a lot of intentional and unintentional discrimination," says Claiborne.

Working toward healthcare parity for people with mental retardation

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is an international year-round program of sports training and competition for individuals with mental retardation. More than one million athletes in over 160 countries train and compete in 26 Olympic-type summer and winter sports. The Special Olympics program provides people with mental retardation continuing opportunities to develop fitness, demonstrate courage, and experience joy as they participate in the sharing of gifts and friendship with other athletes, their families, and the community. The health benefits of sports training and competition for those with mental retardation are widely acknowledged by family members and professionals in the fields of mental retardation, health, and sports.

"Over the last few years, Special Olympics has focused energy on this issue because we believe that health is related integrally to sport," says President and CEO of Special Olympics, Inc., Timothy Shriver. "For years we have known about the great benefits of participation in Special Olympics: increased skills, transformations in self-confidence and self-esteem, new family pride, changes in community attitudes, and more. In general, we are convinced that Special Olympics helps athletes become healthier."

Special Olympics is exerting leadership in the area of health for people with mental retardation because, to date, adequate leadership has not emerged from the healthcare or public policy communities. Moreover, while there has been some welcome progress in terms of increased life expectancy and quality of life for people with mental retardation over the past several decades, major health gaps remain and health improvement opportunities remain widely under-addressed.

To respond to the wealth of data on the health of people with mental retardation, Special Olympics commissioned a Special Report on the Health Status and Needs of Individuals with Mental Retardation. …