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On the heels of the publication of Nate Dougherty's article in the Rochester Business Journal's 25th-Anniversary Commemorative Edition highlighting Tom Golisano's transition from bold entrepreneur to best-in-class CEO, the Golisano Foundation held its Health Care Leadership Awards luncheon on Oct. 18. There, Tom Golisano and the foundation trustees recognized six remarkable Rochester-area health care practitioners who have made a difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through their practices and involvement with Special Olympics' Healthy Athletes program, which provides front-line health services, education and care at Special Olympics events.
The awards luncheon brought together more than 250 community leaders in health, education, politics, business and disability, along with numerous Special Olympics athletes and their families, to celebrate the dedication of the six awardees. It also was a fitting backdrop for Tom Golisano to present Special Olympics with the first installment toward his recent $12 million commitment to help expand access to community-based health care for more people with intellectual disabilities worldwide.
I mention the article, the event and the gift because while Tom is rightly recognized for his achievements as a businessman, his accomplishments as a philanthropist should not be underestimated. Through his foundation and years of work assisting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, he has raised awareness of the largest underserved population. Throughout the globe, people with intellectual disabilities are the most universally marginalized population-subject to stereotype and stigma at best, isolation and cruel institutionalization at worst.
Thanks to his support and involvement, Special Olympics is building a new, improved and expanded model that will go beyond the episodic health care we currently provide at our sporting events-and Rochester will be on the leading edge of this new programming. The new model will be one that uses those events as the catalyst to ongoing, community-based partnerships that increase access to health care and information for people with intellectual disabilities.
We are significantly ramping up our ability to collect vital data on health disparities facing people with intellectual disabilities so that no one-especially public health officials-can ignore the problem. And we are moving beyond our focus on health care issues that are universal in nature (i.e., vision, dental) and into partnerships that allow us to address regionally acute health issues, including those facing people with intellectual disabilities living in extreme poverty (i.e., TB, HIV/AIDS, malaria, etc.).
In short, Tom's business smarts, coupled with his lack of contentment with the status quo, helped lead us in a new direction. He sees opportunities where others may be complacent and helps organizations to implement effective strategies that both improve and extend their reach. He brings equal amounts of Fortune 500 boardroom wisdom, startup creativity and urgency to the philanthropic industry.
In my dealings with Tom as chairman of Special Olympics International, he has continually and consistently coupled the discipline of a CEO with the optimism of an entrepreneur. And for many non-profits-Special Olympics included-the business approach that he brings to social problems is invaluable. In our case, Tom took his time learning about our existing model for delivering health care at our competitions-and once informed, he pressed us to think differently and aggressively about how we could improve our performance, escalate our impact worldwide and reduce the mistreatment of people with intellectual disabilities.
This mistreatment affects all aspects of life, from being mercilessly bullied in schools to being denied employment and other opportunities. But the most damaging result is the lack of access to health care. The Special Olympics movement engages thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities every day around the world, and the health horror stories we hear are unbelievable. We see athletes with heart defects that could have been detected in moments with a simple stethoscope, but no one had ever bothered to check. We see athletes with teeth so decayed that every moment in their lives is pain-filled, but they have no dental insurance. We see athletes with such high pressure in their eyes that blindness is imminent, but they had never before had an eye exam.
Arguably, the most heart-rending part of this story is how few people know this problem exists. More than two-thirds of people think that people with intellectual disabilities have the same or better health care than those without disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities have no army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill or in statehouses, no media outlets telling their story, no presence in boardrooms at health insurance companies. Fortunately, Tom Golisano is one voice for this voiceless population. Considering the scope of the challenge and everything he brings to the causes he dedicates himself to, people with intellectual disabilities worldwide are lucky indeed to have him in their corner.
Still, the challenge of ensuring equal opportunity in health care for people with intellectual disabilities remains and much still needs to be done. Thanks to the help of people like Tom, Special Olympics is fighting a dignity revolution, and we need more people working toward making ours a better world. I implore you, if you are a health care professional, to volunteer with Healthy Athletes at your local or state-level Special Olympics; if you are a business leader, partner with Special Olympics and consider hiring people with disabilities in your workplace; and no matter who you are, contact your representatives and demand that they support policies to bring better health to those most in need. Together, we can build a more equitable future for all.
Timothy P. Shriver is chairman and CEO of Special Olympics International.11/2/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.