Healthy athletes screenings give some the chance to hear for the first time

Mali gold medallist is one of about 300 athletes to be fitted with hearing aids

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Sanatou Diarra will be heading back to Mali with more than just a gold medal. When she arrived at the Special Olympics, Diarra, 21, and her coaches believed she was permanently deaf.

But along with a victory in the 100m, which she ran in 16.16 seconds, Diarra will return home from Abu Dhabi and be able to hear for the first time.

She is one of about 300 athletes who were fitted with hearing aids after thousands were screened as part of the Healthy Athletes programme at the Special Olympics World Games, which provides free diagnosis and treatment.

A handful of them, including Diarra and Mame Ndiagne Ndiaye, a Senegalese footballer whose life-changing moment has been viewed more than six million times, after a video of him having his hearing aids fitted was posted on social media, had never experienced sound.

The first word Diarra heard after being fitted with the hearing aid was her name.

Speaking softly in her native Bambara language, she appeared to enjoy hearing the sound of her name and kept repeating the word.

"She is very happy because she never heard until that day," said her coach, Seydou Keita, who uses sign language to communicate with Diarra. 

Diarra said she could hear music and men speaking but sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the noise.

Keen to return to her family in her home town of Segou, in south central Mali, she said she plans to continue selling juice and water with her mother.

“This is the biggest change in her life. She wants to chat to everyone and she can tell us things like, yesterday, she had a stomach ache and she could tell us,” Mr Keita said.

The screening Diarra received during the Games was the first time a doctor had checked her hearing.

About 10 per cent of the 3,000 who received hearing tests were fitted with free hearing aids. For many from poor countries, the cost of between $1,000 (Dh3,673) and $5,000 for a sophisticated aid would be prohibitive.

Ndiaye, 31, cried after realising he would now hear. "It was very emotional for me, too," said Aboubakrine Sadikh Diaw, who has known Ndiaye since he was four. One of the first sounds Ndiaye heard was Mr Diaw, his unified partner who plays alongside him as a non-disabled athlete, saying his name.

“We didn’t know that Mame would get the hearing aids,” he said. “I didn’t know he could hear me.”

Ndiaye, who communicates through sign language, admitted he was initially confused playing football with his new ability, with sounds such as the referee’s whistle, his coach’s instructions from the sidelines and teammates’ demands for a pass new to him. But he still helped Senegal to a silver medal in the seven-a-side mixed football.

He is looking forward to surprising his family when the youngest of eight siblings returns to the family farm in rural Senegal, where he plucks chickens for a living.

Asked by Mr Diaw whether hearing aids made him happy, a huge smile spread across Ndaiye’s face and he nodded enthusiastically.

With the help of the scheme, at least 15 athletes were given the gift of hearing for the first time this week, said Giscard Bachara, director of Starkey Hearing Technologies in the Middle East and Africa.

The US company's charitable arm, the Starkey Hearing Foundation, works with the Special Olympics to provide free hearing aids to those who need them.

Almost 6,000 people, the vast majority of them athletes with intellectual disabilities, had more than 22,000 health screenings as part of the Special Olympics programme, including hearing tests, dental, eyesight, podiatry and mental health assessments.

If problems were detected athletes were either treated on the spot or, if lifestyle changes were required, given a personalised ‘scorecard’ with instructions for exercises. Many were sent away with a reminder card including simple health promotion messages. Those receiving hearing aids will receive follow-up care from Starkey Hearing Foundation workers based in their own countries.

Dentists, provided by the University of Sharjah’s medical school, as well as doctors and other health workers, were dressed in Special Olympics T-shirts rather than medical scrubs to make them appear less intimidating.

In one case this week, a coach arrived at the podiatrist complaining of foot pain. The discovery of a foot ulcer quickly led to a diagnosis of diabetes. The health workers believe that the intervention saved his foot.

In another case Marfan Syndrome, a serious genetic disorder which affects the body’s connective tissue, was uncovered. Complementary treatment was arranged by the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

“What’s gratifying for me is when you look at the number of screenings, you see it’s four per athlete,” said Meaghan McHugh, the Healthy Athletes director. “That shows athletes are either enjoying the screenings and the experience or they have a significant need.

“There’s two goals — the first is to offer high quality screening, treatment and education. But the other one, which is just as important, is to train health providers to work with our very special athletes.

“We teach them to slow down when they communicate with them, offer a quiet environment, and let them get used to their surroundings so it’s more welcoming. We want to reach a tipping point where every healthcare provider in the world will open their door to people of all abilities.”