Dr. Besser's Notebook: Special Olympics' Legacy for Us All

The games underscore important health issues in the intellectually disabled.

ByDoctor's Notebook by RICHARD BESSER, M.D.
July 19, 2010, 9:44 AM

July 19, 2010— -- When I was in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania more than 20 years ago, our class volunteered to work at the Special Olympics Games in Philadelphia. We assisted athletes, reviewed medical forms and basically did whatever we were asked. It was a great day. Fierce competition at all levels of ability on the University campus. It changed the way I looked at people with intellectual disabilities.

That was my last engagement with the Special Olympics until last year, when I spoke at the International Games in Boise, Idaho, in my role as acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I spoke of the CDC's efforts to support the health screening of the athletes.

In this country, persons with intellectual disabilities get substandard care. According to the Special Olympics, athletes participating in the games have high rates of undetected or untreated vision and hearing problems, dental and gum disease. Why? Many reasons. But one of the reasons is the discomfort of many health care providers in providing services.

Intellectual disability is sometimes referred to as cognitive disability or mental retardation. Children with intellectual disability can and do learn new skills, but they develop more slowly than children with average intelligence and adaptive skills. There are different degrees of Intellectual disability, ranging from mild to profound.

Special Olympics provides competitive sports opportunities for adults and children with intellectual disabilities. And this year, I was invited to the 2010 National Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, to talk about how to engage the media around intellectual disabilities. I brought my 12-year-old son as a way to spend some great one-on-one time with him and to open his eyes to issues he may not have been aware of.

On Sunday morning we sat and watched the softball team from Georgia work out. Five Special Olympics athletes and five partner athletes played together, making the same plays my son's team makes -- or tries to make -- in New Jersey. Beautiful picture of inclusion.

Special Olympics an Inspiration to All

The opening ceremony was Sunday night. It was co-hosted by Brooklyn Decker, a model, and Eddie Barbanell, an actor with intellectual disabilities. We marched in, holding hands with athletes from Southern California.

Never had I seen such enthusiasm and pageantry. Three thousands athletes, a thousand coaches, and tens of thousands of fans. The lighting of the flame, the raising of the flag. Dancing in the aisles. A rousing call to end discrimination against those who are different.

All athletes recited the oath:

Let me I win

But if I cannot win

Let me be brave in the attempt

It was an incredible experience. I hope some of the values and messages connected with my son. If we are going to work toward a better world, we must look at what we are teaching our children.

As we walked out of the arena and across the parking lot, Jack looked up at me with a smile, "Dad, that was awesome."

"Yeah," I said. "It really was."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events