Hearing Health at the Special Olympics: Going For Gold


With the summer Olympics from Beijing still fresh in our memories, its time to turn our attention to the Special Olympics and another group of highly trained, highly skilled athletes.

Many Special Olympians experience hearing loss, sometimes a condition associated with Downs Syndrome and other conditions related to developmental delay. However, that hearing loss doesnt prevent these determined athletes from competing. And winning.

The Special Olympics for Special Competitors

The Special Olympics is the brainchild of Eunice Kennedy Shriver who started a day camp at her home for young people with special needs. All were welcomed and friendly competition was part of each days fun.

The Special Olympics went global on July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago with the First International Special Olympics, and each year more athletes from more countries compete in the numerous events. These are serious athletes who work hard to develop their skills and talents, whether its the weightlifting competition or the 100-yard dash every competitor is a winner a well-trained winner.

Today, more than 2.5 million athletes compete in over 180 countries around the world a movement that will continue to grow thanks to the vision of one woman.

How Special Are the Special Olympics?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is very protective of its reputation and its symbols. The interlocking rings of different colors is a trademarked symbol and more than one business that used the IOCs design found themselves facing a cease and desist order from IOC legal. And rightly so. The World Olympics is a prestigious event and those entrusted with keeping things honest and upright take the necessary steps to protect their name, reputation and symbols.

That all changed in February, 1988. At that time, the International Olympics Committee officially recognized the Special Olympics as representative of the interests of athletes with intellectual disabilities.

The IOC gave the Special Olympics permission to use its resources to promote the special games, making all of these competitors part of the same family.

The Olympian Problem of Hearing Loss

Imagine the excitement of competing in the Olympic Games swimming, track and field, and gymnastics. Now imagine not being able to hear your teammates, your coaches, the trainers or even the judges.

Imagine not being able to hear the crowd roar at your achievement. These are just some of the problems athletes with hearing loss must deal with.

Theres also a matter of safety for the athlete and others if directions cant be heard or followed. This has led to the development of interpreters in many cases. Many coaches have learned basic signs to direct team activities. However, a hearing evaluation for these athletes is still step number one in determining the range and extent of the athletes hearing and preventing any negative impact on the competitors hearing health that might occur during a sporting event.

The Special Olympics Healthy Hearing (HH) initiative is part of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, which was implemented in 1997. The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Initiative also includes programs such as Fit Feet, FUNfitness , Health Promotion, Opening Eyes, MedFest and Special Smiles.

For athletes being screened, the Healthy Hearing program consists of a pre-competition hearing evaluation for participating athletes. According to the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete program, the purposes of the pre-competition hearing evaluation include:

  • determining if hearing loss is present
  • notifying the athlete and coaches of required care, including after care
  • providing athletes with protective gear like ear plugs for swimmers
  • study the prevalence and impact of hearing loss on athletes performance
  • encourage healthy participation at whatever level the athlete can achieve

This coalition of health and fitness advocacy groups has made real strides in identifying hearing loss among special athletes. According to David Evangelista, Director of the Special Olympics Healthy Program and Dr. Gil Herer, Founder and Senior Global Clinical Advisor to the Healthy Hearing program, since its inception into the Special Olympics program in 1998, the Healthy Hearing program has identified previously undiagnosed hearing loss in 20.5% of the competitors one in five athletes.

85% of the detected hearing losses are caused by middle ear problems, many of which have been undiagnosed or under-treated. Fortunately this type of hearing loss typically can be treated medically. The other 15% identified are permanent sensorineural hearing loss.

Identifying athletes through hearing evaluations has increased awareness and treatment of hearing loss among the full range of special needs populations participating in the Special Olympics all over the world.

Special Benefits for Special Athletes

It is not surprising the Healthy Hearing program brings invaluable benefits to participating athletes. In an interview with Healthy Hearing (www.HealthyHearing.com), Evangelist and Herer discussed the many benefits athletes receive: Athletes, as well as their coaches and families, report that once the athletes hearing losses are treated and improved by medical or audiological interventions, their world changes for the better!

They show immediate improvements in their ability to understand others and to speak to others. Their self confidence improves tremendously. This has a large impact not only on the athlete, but on the family unit. They are much easier to coach because they hear and follow directions better. The auditory world is now available to them, which brings with it a myriad of educational and social opportunities. These positive behavior changes of athletes with intellectual disability (ID), due to better hearing, also improve the perceptions of others about their intellectual abilities.

Gold Medal Performance

Our Special Olympians demonstrate the Olympic spirit in their training and competition, in their determination and their sportsmanship.

The Special Olympics relies on volunteers from the hearing health community audiologists, audiology doctorate students, speech and language pathologists and other professionals - to contribute their time and expertise to identify athletes who will benefit from medical intervention or hearing technology.

You can support your local Special Olympics by volunteering on competition days. For more information on the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete program and to learn how you can support this inspirational effort visit the Special Olympics Healthy Athlete website.

Hearing loss wont prevent these boys and girls, men and women from competing and going all out. Quit just isnt in them.

Be a fan of dignity. Be a fan of inspiration. Be a fan of inclusion. Be a fan of the Special Olympics. They cant wait to hear you cheer.

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