Medals, Dental Care and System Wide Change at the Special Olympics World Games

I recently had the honor of attending the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry conference, held in conjunction with the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. It was my first exposure to either event, and each had its own distinct energy that left me feeling humbled and hungry for change.   

Outside of the Special Olympics venue, the streets buzzed with over 6,500 athletes from all over the world and hundreds of thousands of spectators waiting to watch the athletes compete.  Inside the conference, there was a different but equally invigorating energy, as clinicians, students and researchers from around the globe discussed health and health care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).  It was here that I had the opportunity to learn about a training program for dental students that utilizes education and philanthropy as a paradigm for overcoming oral health inequalities for people with IDD in India.  I also discovered the history behind past advocacy efforts to improve access to care and suggestions from experienced clinicians and advocates regarding building new relationships with family members, caregivers and direct service support professionals to advance change in both policy and practice.

Until my experience at the conference, I was unaware just how much Special Olympics invests in the health of its athletes.  Special Olympics is the largest health care provider for people with intellectual disabilities – their Healthy Athletes program reported screening around 1,000 athletes each day during the games, many of whom lack access to routine medical and dental care. For some participants from smaller countries, this program might have served as their first visit to a physician or dentist.

There was a beautiful and eye-opening synergy between the conference and the games. At the same time many athletes were getting much-needed medical and dental care, conference attendees were engaging in conversations to help ensure individuals with disabilities no longer slip through the cracks of the health care delivery system. Some clinicians, educators and advocates in the room provided care to the athletes in conjunction with the games, and all remained focused on achieving long-term, system wide change.  

I was encouraged to witness researchers, clinicians, students and individual attendees reveal themselves as advocates for better health care to those living with a disability; the passion at the conference nearly rivaled the passion at the games. I walked away feeling invigorated and excited to bring the energy and information I learned to our collaborative efforts in Virginia, to ensure all Virginians, regardless of ability, are able to access care and achieve health and well-being.