Special Olympics athletes find competition and health care at qualifying games
For Special Olympics athletes in the Houston area, winning a medal is not their only motivation for participating in the games, but also to receive much-needed wellness screenings.
More than 500 individuals with physical and intellectual challenges converged on Baytown, Texas, on Saturday, April 27, to compete in area track and field qualifying events for Special Olympics Texas.
For many of the athletes, the games bring them a sense of community, purpose and achievement. Because of Healthy Athlete Screenings including MedFest and Special Smiles—which are provided locally by teams from Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry—participating in the games also can become an entry point to health care.
“Each athlete has to have a physical exam every two years if they participate in the Special Olympics,” said Cynthia Peacock, M.D., director of the Baylor Transition Medicine Clinic, which serves adolescents and young adults with a chronic childhood disease or disability. “Some of them come in and they haven’t had care for five or 10 years. So, we give them a physical so they can participate, but the really cool thing is that if we pick up a health issue, we can refer them into our clinic and take care of them.”
Finding medical and dental care can be especially challenging for adults with special needs. By bringing medical and dental students to events like Special Olympics, the athletes not only receive much-needed care, but the students become comfortable treating patients with all types of backgrounds and abilities.
“The goal is that you get the students in and you get them used to working with the population and it is just a matter of fact that they take care of them when they become doctors,” Peacock said. “Students tend to be altruistic—they want to do something for the community—and this is a way for them to do that and practice a new set of skills.”
Over the course of his career, UTHealth School of Dentistry associate professor David Fray, D.D.S., has championed outreach programs that provide care to patients with special needs and has worked with the Special Olympics nationally for 25 years.
“It is really important for us to teach an incremental method of care to our dental students,” Fray said. “This has not been taught in years past, but if the first time a patient with an intellectual disability sees you and you have on a mask, gloves and a bright light in their face, you can imagine you’re going to get a reaction.”
Fray’s work has been inspired by his father, who was deaf, and by witnessing inappropriate care given to patients with special needs over the years.
“Pediatric dentists are trained well to treat children with intellectual disabilities, but there is a real problem when these people are 30 and 40 because there is no specialty in dentistry or in medicine to treat them,” Fray said. “I hope to inspire my students to want to include and treat people with intellectual disabilities.”
VIDEO: Click here to watch a short video about the medical care provided to Special Olympics Texas athletes.
Michael Motter, a 26-year-old athlete with the Katy Wolfpack, stopped by MedFest and Special Smiles with his parents for physical and dental screenings. Doctors diagnosed Michael with autism as well as oral and verbal apraxia as an infant and predicted that he might never talk or read.
“Michael has been competing in the Special Olympics for about 15 years now and it has been transformational for him,” said his mother, Clarice Motter. “He often says Special Olympics is his life.”
Today, Michael Motter has proved his doctors wrong. Besides talking, he reads at an eighth grade level and works at the YMCA.
“For Michael, these health screenings are so important,” Clarice Motter said. “Michael has Medicaid, but he doesn’t have [supplemental] health insurance, so we pay cash for most of his health care. The fluoride treatment that he got today, we would have had to pay for that out of pocket.”
Many other athletes who do not have access to care, coverage or cash rely on Special Olympics screenings.
“There are many athletes whose parents are deceased and are living in group homes and they do not get regular care, so these health screenings are the only health care they might receive and it is so important,” Clarice Motter said. “There are a lot of sensory issues with these athletes—and fear. They just need patience from care providers. It is so great that these students are learning how to work with them.”
Not only will athletes who advance to the statewide games May 2 to 5 in San Antonio receive a welcome from Texas-born actress and humanitarian Eva Longoria, but they also will have access to eight different health care specialty screenings.
“This is only our second year participating with the Special Olympics,” Peacock said, “but in the future, we hope to bring audiology, optometry, speech and other specialties to the area games.”