Changing Outcomes: Changing Lives

Our work isn’t just nice, it’s important.

At Special Olympics Virginia, we envision a world where people with intellectual disabilities (ID) lead healthy, vibrant lives grounded in ongoing sports and physical activity, social and emotional wellness, and a deeply held conviction to improve, compete, and demonstrate their personal best to themselves and their community.

Our Work isn’t Just Nice, It’s Important

According to a Health & Research Evaluation conducted by Special Olympics International (SOI), when compared to those without an ID, individuals with ID are:

as likely to be obese
less likely to be physically active
as likely to have diabetes
as likely to have cardiovascular issues disease and asthma.

  • 2 times as likely to be obese,
  • 2-4 times less likely to be physically active,
  • 5 times as likely to have diabetes and 
  • 2 times as likely to have cardiovascular disease and asthma.

Health has a substantial impact on the quality of life for people with intellectual disabilities and affects each Special Olympics athlete’s ability to train and compete in sports effectively. Despite severe need and higher health risks, people with ID are often denied health services and alarmingly die on average 16 years sooner than the general population.

The Impact of COVID

Recent studies also have illustrated the devastating impact of Covid-19 on individuals with ID in the U.S. According to NEJM Catalyst, a cross-sectional study of 64,858,460 patients across 547 health care organizations revealed that having an ID was the strongest independent risk factor for presenting with a Covid-19 diagnosis and the strongest independent risk factor other than age for Covid-19 mortality. Authors of the study hypothesize that individuals with ID are at a significantly elevated risk of contracting Covid-19 and that they will subsequently be admitted to ICUs and/or die in-hospital more often.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that some people with disabilities might be more likely to get infected or have severe illness because of underlying medical conditions, congregate living settings, or systemic health and social inequities. All people with serious underlying chronic medical conditions like chronic lung disease, a serious heart condition, or a weakened immune system seem to be more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or a stroke.

The risk of people with ID becoming seriously ill or dying to COVID-19 amplifies how critical it is to combat the underlying medical conditions that are so common among them.

Change Through Sports

Special Olympics Virginia exists to improve the quality of life for people with ID by improving their overall health and well-being. We do this through offering year-round sport, health, fitness, and educational programs, virtually and in-person, to children and adults across the Commonwealth at no cost to them or their families.


These programs encourage athletes to take personal responsibility for their health, educate athletes on the importance of maintaining proper health, and provide ways for athletes to engage in healthy activities with others.

Moving the Needle

According to SOI’s Health Research & Evaluation study, when participating in Special Olympics Fitness programs, athletes improved their health outcomes as follows:

of athletes ate at least one more serving of fruits and veggies per day.
of athletes increased physical activity by at least one day per week

  • 35% of athletes ate at least one more serving of fruits and veggies per day, 
  • 32% of athletes increased physical activity by at least one day per week and their blood pressure also decreased, especially in those with highest blood pressure readings, falling from 140/95 to 134/90.

Additionally, at the end of our most recent Fitness Combine during the winter season, 49% of participating athletes showed at least a 15% overall improvement, with 43% showing at least a 46% improvement.

Social-Emotional Wellness 

Special Olympics programs not only improve the physical health of people with ID, but also greatly enhance their mental, emotional and social well-being.

The Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia's University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities conducted a National Core Indicators study in Virginia of adults with intellectual disabilities. Their findings concluded that compared to those not participating in Special Olympics, there was a greater proportion of current Special Olympics participants who:

  • had paid community employment,
  • volunteered,
  • participated in community groups,
  • had friendships with people other than parents and support staff and
  • reported having a best friend. 

Each of these results were statistically significant. Additionally, they found that even when controlling for age and health conditions, current Special Olympics participation significantly predicted increased subjective health. They also found current Special Olympics participation significantly predicted more physical activity.

The Big Picture

Our population spans age, gender, race, background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and ability level - among many other diverse qualities. What unites our 22,000 athletes is the shared desire for connection, opportunity, and belonging.

Using sports, we can build communities of belonging. We can improve health. We are changing lives for a group of people that are often overlooked, marginalized and left out. Join us. 

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For every inspiring Special Olympics athlete in Virginia, there are 11 more people waiting for their chance - and so many more around the world.