Charity Aims to Help People With Learning Difficulties Through Sport

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A charity has highlighted the reduced life expectancy of people with learning difficulties and called for action through sport to help improve their health and fitness.

Special Olympics Great Britain organises year-round sport for people with learning, or intellectual, disabilities. The charity believes that encouraging them to engage in sport can not only help to reduce unfitness levels but encourage self-reliance and a sense of pride.

Karen Wallin, Chief Executive, said, “The life expectancy is horrifying. That’s unacceptable in a country meant to be in the forefront of healthcare.” One in three people with learning difficulties, she added, are obese.

This is not a new problem: far from it. The issues were highlighted by Government-funded research back in 2014, when a report published by the Department of Health concluded that:

  • Men with learning difficulties will die on average 13 years sooner, and women 20 years sooner, than men and women without learning disabilities; and
  • 22% of people with learning difficulties die aged under 50, compared with 9% of people without learning difficulties.

The report goes on to say that the most common reasons were delays or problems with diagnosis or treatment, and problems in identifying needs and providing appropriate care.

Last week Special Olympics GB organised an event at the Copper Box Arena, a London 2012 Olympics venue, which gave people with learning difficulties the chance to try sport for free.

Then in 2017 they will host the Special Olympics National Summer Games between 7th and 12th August in Sheffield. This flagship event is held every 4 years, and is open to both adults and children. Entrants will compete at a national level.

Special Olympics athlete Ian Harper has participated in a number of national and European events. He said, “It gave me more confidence from the start and it gave me more of a sense of believing in what I can do.”

He went on, “Those who are not involved in Special Olympics, who don’t know about Special Olympics, think their chances are limited. But if you get in there it changes your life completely and it feels you’ve got more opportunity.”

Special Olympics GB are in receipt of no special funding. The charity is not helped by the National Lottery, and it is reliant on fundraising and charitable bequests. It recently received some treasury funding, but this was a one-off payment. “We are probably still one of the only countries in Europe that doesn’t receive central funding or sport governing body funding,” Millen says.

Clubs will be asked to raise hundreds of pounds for each competitor they send to the National Summer Games, to enable the event to take place.


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