I first volunteered for a Special Olympics Healthy Hearing (SOHH) event over spring break of my first year as an audiology student. I signed up on a whim – I was one of the few students remaining in town over spring break, and figured I’d be better off spending some time volunteering rather than sitting on my couch watching Netflix. The morning of the event, I nervously arrived at the Tennessee Special Olympics Basketball Tournament with very few expectations but walked away with a love of the mission of Special Olympics and the Healthy Athletes programs. Some of you may have similar experiences with the Special Olympics, while others may not be aware of the work we can do as future audiologists and members of the SAA to support SOHH Programs across the country.
What is the “Special Olympics?”
Prior to my involvement with SOHH, I was unaware of the reach and influence of the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics provides opportunities for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities to compete in individual and team Olympic-style sports, including basketball, figure skating, gymnastics, swimming, cycling, and much more. There are currently Special Olympics programs in over 170 countries, all of which come together for the Special Olympics World Games annually (this year in Abu Dubai). Over five million athletes compete in the Special Olympics with over one million coaches and volunteers in over 100,000 competitions. By participating in the Special Olympics, these individuals develop new strengths and skills, inspiring and empowering athletes across the world. Special Olympics is a fantastic opportunity for athletes to meet friends, create goals, develop teamwork skills, and have a whole lot of fun. The athletes are incredibly passionate about the sports they participate in. If you happen to volunteer for SOHH, take some time to speak with the athletes, find out more about the games they are participating in, and cheer them on!
Special Olympics Healthy Athletes
The Healthy Athletes program offers free health screenings to athletes in a fun and welcoming environment. Since its inception in 1997, Healthy Athletes has delivered over two million free health screenings while training health professionals and students (including us!) to treat people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The program helps both the athletes and professionals involved. Athletes walk away with valuable information about their health, often receiving important screenings and care that may be otherwise overlooked, while professionals and students gain increased skills in working with these individuals. Many people with hearing loss, have comorbid disability(ies), so it is important that we understand how to work with this population as future audiologists, and provide them with the best care possible. Currently, Healthy Athletes provides screenings and follow-up treatment in podiatry, physical therapy, audiology, sports medicine, vision, dentistry, emotional well-being, and general health and well-being.
What is the Special Olympics Healthy Hearing Program?
The SOHH Program is one component of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Program, providing athletes with free audiology services. These services range based on the event, but may include hearing screenings, cerumen removal, hearing aid cleanings/troubleshooting, hearing aid fittings, and noise protection education and services. At the events I’ve attended, we’ve screened for hearing loss and other ear problems using otoscopy, otoacoustic emissions, tympanometry, and pure-tone screenings. We’ve also been able to offer cerumen removal at some events. By participating in the Healthy Hearing events, were able to provide athletes with valuable information about their hearing and help them obtain appropriate follow-up care.
How Can I Get Involved?
The SAA developed a partnership with SOHH in 2010, in order to help SAA chapters connect with SOHH events in their states. There are several ways SAA members can support SOHH events.
- Volunteer at Special Olympics Healthy Hearing events in your state. The SAA website provides the contact information for each state’s SOHH clinical director. If your chapter has not developed a relationship with this program in the past, reach out to your state’s clinical director and find out how you can get involved!
- Collect supplies. Screening and caring for SOHH athletes requires a significant amount of supplies, including audiological equipment, gloves, hand sanitizer, and more. SAA has teamed up with SOHH for a supply drive in order to gather some of the necessary supplies. The SAA website provides more information on participating in these drives.
- Fundraise for SOHH. This money can be used to buy additional supplies and help support the SOHH Program and our athletes! Check out prior blog post by Anna Hutton for more tips and tricks on fundraising here.
- It’s a terrific opportunity to practice your audiology skills! When I first volunteered as a first-year student, I was still completely overwhelmed with audiologic tasks like otoscopy and tympanometry. After looking in about forty ears in just a few hours, I finally started to feel like I understood what I was looking at, and I became much better at achieving a tymp seal. Practicing audiology skills and developing confidence while giving back to your community? Win-win!
- You can develop connections with audiologists in your state. In my state, local audiologists volunteer for the SOHH events as well, making this a great networking opportunity for students. My involvement with SOHH helped me develop a great relationship with one of my clinical supervisors and mentors, whom I now work with on the SAA Student Ambassador task force, various research projects, and more.
- You’ll meet students from other audiology programs in your state. The SOHH events often draw students from programs across the state, giving volunteers the opportunity to meet other students. I’ve loved having the opportunity to meet fellow future audiologists and discussing the differences and similarities in our respective programs. I’ve learned that Tennessee has some amazing future audiologists.
- You can provide important education about audiology. Through SOHH, we can reach an often-underserved population, educating them and their parents or caregivers about the importance of audiological care. We can help provide resources for follow-up care and provide participants with valuable information on hearing loss and noise protection. Engaging with our communities helps us better establish awareness, which is crucial as we attempt to develop autonomy and respect in our profession!
- You’ll be able to give back to your community. SOHH is a wonderful opportunity for your SAA chapter to give back to the community using the skills we already have. If you are looking to increase your humanitarian efforts, this is a fantastic way to do so.
- It’s a whole lot of fun!
When planning events for your SAA chapter for the next year, consider finding time to support the Special Olympics Healthy Hearing Program. If your chapter has participated in SOHH events in the past, comment about your experiences below!
For more information, check out the following websites:
Sarah Alfieri is a second-year audiology student at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. She is the SAA State Ambassador for Tennessee in addition to serving on the SAA Communications Committee and as the social chair for her local SAA chapter. She was recently elected to the SAA Board of Directors for the 2019-2020 school year. Her audiology interests include pediatrics, early identification and intervention, newborn hearing screening, electrophysiology, educational audiology, and serving children with multiple disabilities. Outside of audiology, you can find Sarah singing in her local barbershop chorus or belting Broadway songs loud enough to create a noise notch. Her goal in life is to meet Taylor Swift – so Taylor, if you’re reading this, hit her up for a hearing test ASAP!
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