Javier Vasquez, VP Health Programs Special Olympics

Healthy athletes
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Javier Vasquez toils on the front lines of global healthcare policy to ensure athletes with disabilities have access to healthcare. As Vice President of Health Programs for the Special Olympics (SO), he is a lawyer who helped expand the health screenings of athletes during the Games and thereafter, when they return to their home. Vasquez’s interest in disabilities stems from years of witnessing first-hand the bleak conditions many institutionalized people with intellectual disabilities endure in psychiatric hospitals around the world. ABILITY spoke with Vasquez about his impassioned work with the SO, and their long-range goal of making healthcare a sustainable reality for people with intellectual disabilities in their home countries.

ABILITY: How did you become part of the health programs of the Special Olympics?

Javier Vasquez: I was in the World Health Organization for 17 years as the human rights advisor in the region of the Americas covering North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. I worked primarily on mental health issues and also issues related to health law and policy reform in countries. I began my career visiting psychiatric hospitals and their mental health services with the World Health Organization (WHO) when I realized that there were so many people with intellectual disabilities who had been institutionalized and who were isolated in psychiatric hospitals under deplorable conditions. I developed this interest in intellectual disabilities.

ABILITY: Is your background in health?

Vasquez: I’m a health law lawyer. I worked in a mental health institution in Panama for two years studying the connections between human rights and health. After WHO, I wanted to work for people with intellectual disabilities, so for the Special Olympics I had the opportunity to work on their global health programs that involve scaling up the health screenings of athletes. It’s part of the Healthy Athlete program, which tries to make healthcare sustainable after the Games for people with intellectual disabilities, so we work with a country’s ministries of health, health authorities, the WHO and other international organizations to ensure primary healthcare services are available in the community and in general hospitals.

Part of my job is to facilitate the referrals and follow-up care for athletes for healthcare services that, for the most part, are part of the ministries of health. So as you can imagine, now Special Olympics can be a public health leader that is sharing the data we’ve collected on healthy athletes with the governments, the ministries of health, UN agencies and the WHO. We are also sharing our platforms, inviting them to come to the Games, to come and see healthy athletes. We always try to have representation from the ministries of health in our Games. And now we are implementing our health strategy, which is the Global Strategy 2016-2020. One of our targets is training healthcare professionals. Here in Abu Dhabi we launched a new initiative to train 10,000 public healthcare workers, including community healthcare workers, over the next five years in 20 developing countries. We want to work with the ministries of heath to make healthcare sustainable after the Games for people with intellectual disabilities in national health systems.

ABILITY: So beyond mental health, you want to include follow-up in all health areas?

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Vasquez: Yes, in all health areas. Because every national healthcare system should have policies, plans, laws, and services that allow people with intellectual disabilities to be treated like anybody else, whether in general hospitals, primary healthcare, clinics, or in community-based services. ...
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