Essilor has supported the Opening Eyes program of Special Olympics since 2002 and provided thousands of athletes over the years with the vision correction they need to perform their best.
We sat down with David Evangelista, President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Europe & Eurasia, to learn more about this program, the tremendous impact it has delivered for athletes with intellectual disabilities, and the challenges faced amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
- What is the Opening Eyes program about?
The Opening Eyes program was founded in 1991 by the late Dr. Paul Berman, an American optometrist who dedicated his life to bringing critical eye health and vision care support to individuals with intellectual disabilities – one of the most marginalized and underserved communities globally. Under his vision, the program would provide education, screening, and clinical interventions to create lasting, positive change for athletes and patients.
The program was officially incorporated into Special Olympics in 1997, and significantly expanded through the civic and philanthropic support of the Lions Clubs International Foundation in 2001.
To date, the program has:
- Brought critical vision care services to over 400,000 Special Olympics athletes – provided by Special Olympics and its partners, through the global support of Essilor International and the Essilor Vision Foundation
- Provided prescription eyewear to hundreds of thousands of athletes, through Essilor’s generous approach to inclusive development and inclusive health for all
- Trained thousands of clinical professionals globally on how to implement the Opening Eyes program and best treat this population in public and private clinical settings.
- Brought the program to over 90 nations, predominantly low-to-middle income nations where individuals with intellectual disabilities often lack access to such services in their local communities – as part of a shared commitment to international development between Special Olympics and Essilor.
- How has the Opening Eyes program impacted its beneficiaries?
With improved vision, individuals with intellectual disabilities see significant improvements in their sports and life experiences. The program also redefines the role of eye health and vision care professionals and helps provide a deeper value of vision care.
During the 2001 Special Olympics New Zealand National Games, I saw the value of the program extend beyond the patient-professional relationship.
Following vision screenings, the Opening Eyes team was distributing prescription glasses to all athletes at the conclusion of the Games. I recall vividly an athlete who required a very strong prescription with his new glasses. He smiled as he looked around the room with new clarity and upon spotting his mother, approached her and exclaimed, “Mum, I’ve never seen you this clearly before. You’re beautiful!”
Many of us were moved by this interaction as it revealed how quality eye health and vision care can contribute to a life of discovery. It also helped Special Olympics discover a new level of impact for Opening Eyes and its global health platform, and the value of our partnership with Essilor.
- What are some challenges individuals with intellectual disabilities face in accessing good vision and how does the Opening Eyes program help?
The key challenges include:
- Lack of health access, literacy and services: As one of the most underserved demographics in the world today, they face some of the worst forms of marginalization, stigmatization and isolation that hinders their ability to access quality health care. Athletes are in the same position and Essilor is urgently trying to solve these issues.
- Unempowered to advocate for their own health: This often translates into resignation and requires strong support to overcome. Special Olympics, volunteers, families and clinical leaders work to give this population a voice, not just on the field. In many ways, their quest for self-determination begins with the simple yet profound provision of prescription eyewear which empowers and enables much more.
- Lack of specialized clinical training for eye health and vision care specialists resulting in poor care or none at all: There are countless cases of treatable vision conditions and uncorrected refractive error being attributed to intellectual disability rather than treating it with a person-first approach. The Opening Eyes program empowers professionals to provide a quality service for this demographic in need and educate them on ability, equity, and solidarity.
- Access to good vision out of reach for individuals with intellectual disabilities who live in poverty: Positioning the Opening Eyes program as community-based is key to empowering local professionals to localize it to create the highest form of access and offer the best quality service. Essilor’s global infrastructure and vision plays a big part in expanding this positioning in over 100 nations.
- What makes the partnership between Essilor and the Special Olympics so valuable?
The partnership challenges the status quo in civil society and business – by daring professionals, families, governments and individuals to dream bigger, think differently, and create real community connection through vision. The partnership has grown over the years because of our shared values of solidarity, unity, empowerment; and a core belief that we have a responsibility to support those most in need, wherever they are.
Special Olympics and Essilor share a global vision and relentless pursuit for positive impact by empowering individuals to make sustainable change in their communities and nations. Through our partnership, countless private practicing optometrists, Essilor leaders and others have shown the results that can be achieved when they are empowered to act and serve. It is this underlying servant-leader mentality that I believe makes this partnership so strong, impactful and a great model for the world.
- What’s next for the Opening Eyes program? How has it adapted during COVID and what plans does it have for recovery?
The population of individuals with intellectual disabilities has been disproportionately impacted by the current COVID crisis. Besides greater social isolation of this already-marginalized segment, these individuals have been found to face mortality rates of up to 6x the global average for Covid-19 infection, largely due to their low health literacy rates and lack of sustained access to care.
The pandemic has made the Opening Eyes program more urgent and Special Olympics has adapted quickly to set up virtual education and clinical consultations for ensure athletes with intellectual disabilities, and online forums for their families get advice from vision care professionals and local government officials.
Special Olympics and Essilor have committed to address the plight facing individuals with intellectual disabilities and their vision care needs. This has helped transform the lives of athletes with intellectual disabilities, their families, eye care professionals, corporate leaders, and civic leaders the world over. Essilor’s global infrastructure has been instrumental in the growth of the Opening Eyes program and has empowered us as we embark on this journey of inclusion together.