Health Disparities for People with ID

New Jersey Swimmer Jessica Licata Warming-Up with a Smile at Special Olympics Southern California Games, 2014
Special Olympics, founded in 1968, is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics Health, launched in 1997, focuses on the health of our athletes and applying lessons learned from our work to help improve the health of all people with intellectual disabilities.


Historically, society has had low expectations of people with intellectual disabilities (ID), viewing them as incapable of engaging in community life. People with ID were frequently institutionalized or kept out of their communities. As the result of poor care and social segregation, many did not live past the age of 20. The Disability Rights Movement emerged during the 20th century and focused on the elimination of institutional, physical, and societal/attitudinal barriers experienced by people with disabilities. One area the movement focused on was improving the living circumstances of people with ID by advocating for closing of institutions and supporting the integration of people with ID in their own communities. As the result, people with ID are now living longer than ever. However, people with ID continue to face barriers to health as the public health and health care systems have been slow to keep pace with the social changes. People with ID remain one of the most medically underserved groups in the world and still face significant health disparities, not directly caused by their disability.

Health disparities

Health disparities, sometimes called health inequities, are preventable or avoidable differences in healthcare between different groups of people. Typically, these differences are experienced by vulnerable populations as a result of poorer access to and quality of health care. Due to a range of systemic challenges, including inadequate provider training and inaccessible facilities, people with ID have less access to quality health care and health promotion programs. As a result, people with ID experience dramatically higher rates of preventable health issues than peers without ID. According to the National Council on Disability, people with ID face a “constellation of health and health care disparities, including inadequate health and wellness promotion and inconsistent access to highquality health care services.”i

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