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Frank Hayden, now living in Oakville, Ont., founded the Special Olympics 50 years ago.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Frank Hayden is more than a pioneer of the Special Olympics. He also led the way in research that challenged long-held assumptions that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities could not participate or benefit from sport.

“He was able to demonstrate very early on, with the right efforts and adaptations, that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities could participate at many levels of competitive and recreational sport to their best potential,” says Jonathan Weiss, associate professor with the department of psychology at York University in Toronto, and York research chair in autism and neurodevelopmental disability mental health.

“At the time, the prevailing attitude was one of exclusion – that people with intellectual disabilities could not and should not engage in these activities,” adds Weiss, who for the past 15 years has built on Hayden’s research by studying and documenting the physical, psychological and social benefits of Special Olympics, and looking at the various ways to adapt the events to support athletes.

Hayden’s research in this field began at University of Toronto, where he landed his first job after getting his doctorate from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill. The job offer coincided with a grant from five Rotary Club chapters supporting research into fitness and children with developmental disabilities.

“The grant would be enough to pay half my salary, so the department dean at the time said, ‘You’ve got the job either way but it would be nice if you were able to take on this research,’” says Hayden. “I went to the library and found nothing on modern development and fitness, and I said, ’Okay, I’ll do it.’”

Over the next 2½ years, Hayden worked with children at Beverley Public School, a Toronto facility for students with developmental disabilities. His goal: to find out if participating in sports could improve the strength, stamina and general fitness of kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“We found we could improve their fitness and health,” says Hayden. “If at the start of the school year, they were 50 per cent as fit as children with no developmental disabilities, at the end of the year they were about 75 per cent as fit and still getting better.”

When Hayden presented his findings in Rome in 1964, at the world’s first conference on the psychology of sport, he found a largely uninterested audience.

A lot has changed since then, says Weiss. Today, there’s a large and growing body of research on Special Olympics and on the effect of sports in general on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

New topics of research in the field have emerged in recent years, including how being involved in Special Olympics improves other aspects of health, such as eye health, or how it might help prevent disease.

“Globally, Special Olympics has introduced initiatives that use participation in the Games as an opportunity for athletes to meet with health-care practitioners to obtain tests and screening they might not access otherwise,” says Weiss.

There’s also been heightened interest in studying adapted physical activities and sports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, he adds.

“We can think of Special Olympics as a thought leader in many of today’s programs for children and for adults — with or without disabilities — and in how schools are innovating to get kids and families more involved in sports and physical activity,” says Weiss. “Dr. Hayden’s research helped us get to where we are today.”