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Eye Care Initiative Announced for Special Olympics Nationals

Media Release: 28 November 2013

Eye Care Initiative Announced for Special Olympics Nationals

Hundreds of New Zealand's top Special Olympics athletes will be screened for undiagnosed eye conditions thanks to a local charitable initiative.

Around 800 Kiwi athletes with an intellectual disability will benefit from the eye screening initiative which will see them receive specialist eye care during their event in Dunedin from November 27 to 30

The screenings will be provided with the help of the Special Olympics sponsor Essilor, a global player in eye research and treatment.

The General Manager for Essilor NZ Thomas Martin says a great number of Special Olympics athletes suffer poor eye health, as they can be more difficult to examine, require specialist equipment and skills, and need a longer examination time.

Thomas says the assessment process is a "huge" undertaking for the 42 specialist optometrists, technicians and volunteers who will screen as many of the nearly 1200 competitors as they can and manufacture lenses for around 300 within 3 days.

A recent study by Special Olympics New Zealand which provides sports training, competition and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities showed that nine out of 10 athletes failed their Opening Eyes screening tests.

Thomas says this is because funds are often difficult to secure for spectacle and ophthalmic care, especially if spectacles are misplaced or broken and it can be difficult for this group to maintain a current pair.

"This population have a higher medical spend and sometimes choices need to be made about where best to spend the money, sadly eyesight is one of the things that gets pushed down the list," he says.

The company has already screened more than 2000 athletes, provided more than 1000 spectacles and made 180 referrals for further treatment during the past three campaigns it has sponsored.

He says often the diagnosis of an eyesight issue and subsequent treatment is "life changing" for those affected.

"Sometimes assumptions are made regarding reduced vision that can be incorrect. For example many individuals with intellectual disability have difficulty with accommodation. Although an athlete might not read, they still benefit with clear vision for craft or work, or to see to eat," says Thomas.

He points to a case of an 18-year-old an Argentinean athlete who was dependent on care. Thomas says once he was diagnosed and spectacles dispensed he went on to maintain a higher degree of independence.

"This young chap went from having full time care to being able to use a public bathroom unaided for the first time. The problem wasn't his an intellectual disability to do this, he just simply couldn't see where to go," he says.,.

Thomas says unfortunately that in addition to correcting near and far sightedness, over a dozen other undiagnosed conditions were identified in athletes at the last games Essilor sponsored just four years ago.

"These ranged from Cataracts, Glaucoma, Pterygium, Blepharitis, Entropion, Ectropion, Strabismus, Amblyopia, Corneal Dystrophy, Keratoconus are other conditions that were detected in the screening process during previous games," he says.

Thomas says many of these illnesses are treatable if detected early enough.

"We have been working with these athletes for more than a decade and are extremely humbled when we see how grateful they are for the gift of sight. Many of them are moved to tears when they discover they can see for the first time and also the higher degree of independence this vision allows them to have."

The 2013 Special Olympics New Zealand National Summer Games will be held in Dunedin from November 27 - 30.

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