NZ’s special athletes getting ‘unspecial’ health care

1 March 2014

Screening of the country’s Special Olympics athletes shows high levels of undiagnosed health issues. Special Olympics CEO KATHY GIBSON challenges the policy makers and the health sector to provide free health screening for people with intellectual disabilities.

Demographically, David appears to be similar to many other New Zealanders.

He’s aged in his 50s, lives independently, works part-time, receives a benefit, and plays sport.

What the picture doesn’t show is that David has an intellectual disability and suffers from a multitude of health issues that have only recently been uncovered.

It was through his involvement with sports organisation Special Olympics New Zealand that David managed to get the care he needed. Cases like David’s are seen regularly within athletes who train with Special Olympics New Zealand.

We work with people with a range of intellectual disabilities, from those with a high level of needs and dependence to those who are at a near-elite level in their chosen sport and train with mainstream teams.

All have unique health requirements over and above many other New Zealanders. Yet many of them, in our experience, fail to get the care they require. Often it is due to communication barriers with some unable to say that they are suffering from pain or feeling different from usual.

We know from international research that people with an intellectual disability have poorer health than the general population. It has widely been assumed that these studies would be reflective of the health status and needs of New Zealanders with an intellectual disability. We can attest to this anecdotally through our work in the sector.

Special Olympics New Zealand’s report Athlete Health Overview (released November 2013) goes some way toward addressing New Zealand’s gaps in knowledge.

The report focuses on data gathered from our Healthy Athletes® screening at Special Olympics New Zealand’s National Summer Games in 2005 and 2009. Researchers from the Donald Beasley Institute, which specialises in disability research and education, analysed the data from ‘Opening Eyes’, ‘Healthy Hearing’, ‘Special Smiles’, and ‘Fit Feet’ screens and provided comparisons to Healthy Athletes® screening results from the Special Olympics World Winter Games held in Ireland in 2003.

The researchers have done a stellar job in putting together this report, which provides New Zealand’s first insight into the state of health of our population with intellectual disabilities.

During the screening, 9 out of 10 athletes failed one of the Opening Eyes screening tests; serious, undetected, and untreated ear conditions were discovered; two in three athletes presented with poor oral health (including four in five athletes over the age of 50 having missing teeth); and one out of five athletes was wearing a shoe that was more than two sizes too big or too small for their feet.

Alarmingly, the research uncovered regional discrepancies in which athletes from some areas presented with far more health issues than others, indicating they are not getting an appropriate level of care from their district health boards or primary health organisations.

Special Olympics’ Healthy Athletes® screening is the only regular health screening conducted in New Zealand that reaches people with intellectual disabilities. But even our programme has its limitations.

At present, the Healthy Athletes® screening only captures athletes who are capable of competing at our National Summer Games. By and large, international research has found that Special Olympics athletes tend to be younger, more able, healthier, and better supported than other individuals with an intellectual disability, and this is particularly the case with athletes who attend the National Summer Games in New Zealand. For this reason, the state of health of New Zealand’s intellectually disabled population may well be worse than the findings in this report.

We have more than 6000 athletes who train with Special Olympics New Zealand across our 44 clubs, yet only around 1000 compete at our National Summer Games and receive health screening. It is estimated 1 per cent of New Zealand’s population has an intellectual disability. On this basis, there could be upwards of 39,000 New Zealanders who have undiagnosed health issues due to a lack of health screening.

We have incorporated the findings of the Athlete Health Overview report into the upcoming screening programme at our National Summer Games 2013 in Dunedin (held in late November/early December). The results from these games will give us an even clearer picture of the state of health of New Zealanders with intellectual disabilities.

In time, we hope to extend our Healthy Athletes® screening programme beyond the Games. In the meantime, we hope that policy makers and district health boards across New Zealand will read our report and take up the mantle of providing free health screening for people with intellectual disabilities.

The challenge has been laid.

Special Olympics New Zealand’s Athlete Health Overview is available at