Opening Eyes® Provides a Clear Vision for SOWI Athletes

May 1, 2024 Blog, Events, Featured, Press

Imagine training for months or years to qualify for the swimming competition of a lifetime. All those hours, all those practices. You get up on the block awaiting the starting gun as you gaze out toward the pool and see nothing but a blur.

This scenario is a reality for some of our athletes and Special Olympics Wisconsin provides assistance for these athletes through the Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Foundation Opening Eyes® program.

Led by volunteer vision care professionals and possible through a grant from the Lions Clubs International Foundation, Opening Eyes® provides vision screenings, refraction, and prescription eyewear, sunglasses and sports goggles to Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes, including prescription swim goggles when appropriate. Athletes who do not have a prescription receive sunglasses.

At the 2022 Celebration Games Opening Eyes® event, eight athletes were provided prescription swim goggles. One of them was Special Olympics Wisconsin athlete and Unified Leadership Specialist, Lexi Galarowicz.

Lexi, who is legally blind, explained why these goggles are so important to her.

“I have limited vision and I only have vision in one eye,” Lexi explained. “I don’t have any depth perception or peripheral vision. I’m completely night blind.”

“The best way I can describe it is if you put one hand over one of your eyes and made a really small circle with your fingers and put that over your other eye … that’s how much I can see,” said Lexi.

Her vision troubles are amplified when she’s in the water.

“There’s a “T” painted on the bottom of the pool at the end of the lane that lets you know when to start your turn. I can’t see that. It does nothing for me.”

With her prescription goggles, Lexi can make out the “T” on the bottom of the pool. Without them, a volunteer needs to stand on the pool deck with a long stick and tap her, notifying her when to start her turn.

Lexi received prescription swim goggles through the Opening Eyes® program and the difference has been remarkable. In addition to actually being able to see more when in the water and at the start, the goggles help outside the water as well.

“Before my prescription goggles, I had to put on my regular goggles at staging and then be escorted to the starting area and escorted back when my heat was over,” said Lexi. “With my prescription goggles, I can put them on and make sure they fit properly and not have to rush on the pool deck to make sure they fit right and would stay on during my race.”

For many athletes, transportation issues, access to care, and the cost of corrective lenses are all barriers to seeing clearly and performing at their best.

In fact, a large percentage of Special Olympics athletes have unmet vison needs. Opening Eyes® data revealed that 35% of athletes tested need prescription glasses and 15% have an eye disease. Many athletes have never even had an eye exam.

“Opening Eyes® is about more than just providing eye exams and corrective eyewear for our athletes,” Special Olympics Wisconsin Senior Director of Health Programs Brittany Hoegh said.

“Opening Eyes® is about providing education to athletes, parents and coaches about the importance of regular eye care,” Hoegh further explained.  “Our goal is to increase knowledge of visual and eye health needs of persons with intellectual disabilities through additional research and make permanent changes in the attitudes of eye care professionals about the vision care needs of persons with intellectual disabilities.”

The partnership of Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International is dramatically expanding the effort’s scope, including the development of Train-the-Trainer sessions to create a strong volunteer force of vision health professionals. The partnership enables Opening Eyes to reach one of the world’s most underserved population: those with intellectual disabilities.

The program is completely operated by volunteers, led by the program’s clinical director, Dr. Kellye Knueppel. Dr. Knueppel started Opening Eyes® in Wisconsin in 2001 and was the recipient of the Golisano Health Award at Spring Games in 2023.

“It is an honor and a pleasure to provide this program for our Special Olympics Wisconsin athletes,” Dr. Knueppel said.  “Every year we find several athletes who are not even aware that they have a problem with their vision and that we can do something about it. It is a blessing to be able to explain to them, their families and coaches what is going on with their vision. Over the years we have also been able to help specific athletes with unique vision situations like Lexi’s. We are looking forward to seeing old friends and making some new ones when we provide the program at the State Summer Games!”

Opening Eyes® will be screening athletes at the 2024 Summer Games in Whitewater on June 7 in the Williams Center from 9:30 to 3:30. Make sure to stop by and get screened!

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