"Part of this effort is educational, because we'll have optometry students assisting with exams, and part of it is outreach, because many of these athletes either don't have access to eye care or don't have the right kind of eyewear for their sports," said Dr. Ralph
Herring, who is the director of the college's external education program and who has been involved with Special Olympics programs for 18 years.
Supporters in the Gulf Coast area kicked off the Games on Wednesday with a press conference at the Cullen Family Plaza on the UH campus, which served as this year's starting line for the annual torch run by area law enforcement officers.
Today the Games begin, and volunteers will roll out a variety of health screenings as part of the Special Olympics' Healthy Athletes program, which emphasizes vision, hearing, dentistry, podiatry, general fitness and nutrition.
"We never get to evaluate everyone, because we're there for a short time, and there may be as many as 2,500 athletes competing. We expect, however, to screen between 200 and 250 athletes over two days," said Herring. "We'll have more than two dozen volunteers from UH, including students, faculty, staff and alumni."
The athletes' need for proper eyewear is profound, especially if they're playing high-impact sports that require prescription or protective goggles, Herring said.
According to organizers, of the athletes who underwent vision screenings at the past four international Games, 32 percent had never had an eye exam, and 26 percent needed new glasses, because their existing pairs either had incorrect or outdated prescriptions or were otherwise unsuitable.
"Some athletes don't have eyewear at all, or they don't have a pair that they can wear during sports," Herring explained. "Many live at home with family who don't want their athletes to get their glasses broken, so they might be competing in a visually demanding sport like basketball at a level less than their potential."
Access to care is another issue, according to Herring.
"Many health care providers aren't comfortable working with this patient population. Athletes and their families often don't know where to find providers who understand their special needs," he said. "We, therefore, recruit doctors to the Games to train them and show them that it is not as challenging as they may think."
Dr. Paul Berman, who founded the Opening Eyes program, said the relationship Special Olympics Texas has with the UH College of Optometry has helped make the effort "one of our premier events."
"Thousands of athletes have benefited from this community service by the college and its constituents," he said. "Through the generosity of Lions Clubs International, Essilor and Safilo, the athletes actually receive glasses and sunglasses - to protect them from ultraviolet radiation."
Meanwhile, Herring said he is also working with different medical specialists and local Special Olympics staff members to one day provide similar health screenings to Houston-area athletes.
"Most of your athletes don't compete beyond a local competition. You have thousands participating in our area year round," he explained. "Our goal is to turn this effort into a health event that we can bring in the local athletes and care for them right here in Houston."
The 2009 Summer Games at the University of Texas at Arlington run through Sunday. For more information about Special Olympics, visit www.specialolympics.org.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.
About the UH College of Optometry
For more than 50 years, the University of Houston College of Optometry (UHCO) has trained optometrists to provide the highest quality eye and vision care. One of only 17 optometry schools in the United States, UHCO offers a variety of degree programs, including Doctor of Optometry (O.D.), a combined Doctor of Optometry/Doctor of Philosophy (O.D./Ph.D.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). UHCO consists of 65 full-time faculty, 206 adjunct faculty and 100 full-time staff.
About Special Olympics Texas
Special Olympics Texas provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community. For more information, visit www.sotx.org.
For more information about UH, visit the university's Newsroom at www.uh.edu/newsroom.
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