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Home The Lions Blog Students Have Their Eyes Opened to the Critical Needs of the Marginalized Community

Students Have Their Eyes Opened to the Critical Needs of the Marginalized Community

Silvia Cassina December 24, 2020
A Special Olympics athlete receives an eye exam by a volunteer at an Opening Eyes event.

As part of a long-standing commitment to eradicate preventable blindness worldwide, Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), together with countless Lions clubs and Leo volunteers, serves as a global leader in supporting the eye health and vision care of individuals with intellectual disabilities. In addition, LCIF provides clinical professionals an opportunity to gain critical skills in treating individuals with intellectual disabilities. LCIF and Special Olympics, in partnership, work tirelessly to increase the access to vision care for this marginalized population subset, and the statistics are alarming.

For almost 20 years, athlete by athlete, country by country, the Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Foundation Opening Eyes® program has been addressing these problems.

Globally, 35% of Special Olympics athletes need new prescription glasses and 23% have never had an eye exam. For almost 20 years, athlete by athlete, country by country, the Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Foundation Opening Eyes® program has been addressing these problems.

Whether the athletes need new glasses, new prescriptions or more specific examinations, Opening Eyes has been, and will be there to improve eye care for Special Olympics athletes and for all people with intellectual differences. Through the support of industry leaders like Essilor International, Safilo S.p.A., Liberty Sport and more, the Special Olympics-LCIF is empowered to provide athletes with real clinical interventions, in real time.

Ever since his first experience with Opening Eyes in 2003, Professor Wolfgang Sickenberger has been one of the program’s most dedicated and enthusiastic supporters. As head of the Optometry and Vision Science at Ernst-Abbe University of Applied Science in Jena, Germany, Professor Sickenberger was keen to offer his students the opportunity to train within the program. So he included Opening Eyes in the selection of externships – short experiential learning experiences – as an offering to his students.

“Due to our segregated school system, many students have little or no contact at all with people with disabilities,” says Professor Sickenberger. “At Opening Eyes, they often meet people with intellectual disabilities (ID) up close for the first time and oftentimes feel unsure and doubtful about how to behave properly at first, but they soon integrate. The whole Opening Eyes team supports each other and works closely together. The positive feedback from the athletes, as well as the general atmosphere, makes you quickly forget about your insecurities and fears.”

The professor underscored the importance of the Opening Eyes experience for both his students and their patients: “Our students experience first hand that their career choice as optometrists and opticians can make a positive contribution to optical care. Many of the athletes we examine have never had such a comprehensive eye examination, nor do they own suitable visual aids for sports. Among other things, good vision contributes significantly to the reduction of sports accidents, and a suitable optical fitting increases the joy of playing and living in general, not only for sports.”

Professor Wolfgang Sickenberger, head of Optometry and Vision Science at Ernst-Abbe University of Applied Science, with his students at an Opening Eyes event in Germany.

Professor Wolfgang Sickenberger, head of Optometry and Vision Science at Ernst-Abbe University of Applied Science, with his students at an Opening Eyes event in Germany.

Every year, Professor Sickenberger and his colleagues are positively surprised by the number of students who opt to experience Opening Eyes over luxurious externships abroad. The feedback he receives from them is yet another testimonial of their enthusiasm and excitement for the program. “People with cognitive impairments are very special, and we can all learn and benefit from connecting with them,” says Maria Stinn, who is an optometry student who trained with Opening Eyes. “Their unbiased, cordial approach and the joy they take in for what they do is something I try to apply to both my professional and my personal life. I learned to overcome one’s own limits and celebrate the small successes.”

Volunteer student, Maria Stinn, with a Special Olympics Deutschland athlete.

Volunteer student, Maria Stinn, with a Special Olympics Deutschland athlete.

Students were also struck by the atmosphere at Opening Eyes sessions. They all indicated that overcoming their insecurities and hesitation was the main takeaway from the whole experience. “I was a little nervous in the run-up to the event,” adds Maria. “But my nervousness disappeared very quickly on the first day. Just seeing the warmth and joy with which the people at Special Olympics treat each other made all my fear and jittery nerves fade away. I remember the occasions when we were able to watch some competitions and cheer on the athletes—to see the joy on the faces of every single person was priceless.”

Volunteering with Special Olympics, however, has also revealed the shortcomings of medical care for the majority of people with intellectual disabilities who more often than not find themselves without access to adequate medical care. Maria concludes, “This experience opened our eyes to how much the medical field has underserved people with ID. Some participants were not aware of their eye conditions. There is still a lot to do for new, potential opticians and ophthalmologists. The Special Olympics Lions Clubs International Foundation Opening Eyes program is extremely important to raise awareness of the issue of healthcare for people with ID for all caregivers and supporters. But mostly, it gives us the possibility to offer people a better quality of life through optimally-corrected vision.”

Learn more about how LCIF and Special Olympics are improving the lives of athletes with intellectual disabilities.


Silvia Cassina is part of the Communications Department of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia.

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