Montanan Recognized as International Trailblazer for Inclusive Health

Rebecca Morley of Missoula has been recognized as one of seven health trailblazers in the world. Representing North America and the Caribbean region, Morley stood shoulder to shoulder with other 2022 Health Leadership Award recipients from Japan, Macau, Lebanon, Chile, Ukraine, and Senegal who were recently recognized in New York City. Even so, Morley remains humble about her efforts that lead to international recognition by Special Olympics and the Golisano Foundation.

“When you look back at what I’ve done, it’s just been a little bit here and there to make sure that people with all abilities have access to healthcare and are treated with respect and dignity.”

That bit-by-bit approach to securing health equity for people with intellectual disabilities (ID) started four decades ago with the birth of her son, Drake.

“For my own son, I was told about his limitations as he was growing up. I never really believed in those limitations; I believed in his abilities so I supported what he could do over what he couldn’t. Sometimes that was very hard to prove that to school systems and other healthcare personnel, but I just wouldn’t relent.”

Rebecca Morley of Missoula receives the Global Golisano Health Leadership Award in New York City on September 19th.

In her career at the Missoula City-County Health Department, Rebecca worked tirelessly to champion inclusive health for 15 years, to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities were included in mainstream public health programs. She also worked to ensure that individuals with intellectual disabilities were included in the annual BMI surveillance at local public schools. This data was then used to advocate for the elimination of using food such as sweet treats as a reward in all classrooms, which became policy for Missoula County Public Schools and remains in place today.

Morley has also spent more than 10 years as a clinical director for Special Olympics Montana Health Promotion, the discipline that conducts health screenings of body mass index based on height and weight, blood pressure, and bone mineral density. Health Promotion also uses interactive educational tools and displays to raise the awareness of Special Olympics athletes about the need to improve and maintain an enhanced level of wellness and self-care.

“One of the things I think is really important is doing the health screenings—to keep that data in an electronic database, do referrals, follow up and ensure that athletes get the medical help that they need.”

As a parent of someone with special needs, Morley knows firsthand how difficult it can be to identify and get access to all the resources that exist.

“It’s not easy. If one doesn’t have strong family advocates, they can miss opportunities. That’s why it is so wonderful that we can do health screenings for Special Olympic athletes because some of those people would be falling through the cracks, and we wouldn’t be able to make diagnosis that help them have a better life.”

In addition to helping individuals with intellectual disabilities get the healthcare they need; Morley has also worked with students entering the healthcare field to raise their awareness about health inequity.  

“I had the opportunity to take interns from health and human performance during my tenure at the department of health. Were able to take these interns and nursing students from University of Montana and from Salish-Kootenai out into the community and have them interact with Special Olympics athletes. I was able to talk to them about the propensity of Special Olympics athletes and others with IDD to have health disparities in obesity and how we can help them get better exercise, eat healthier foods and educate their families.”

Something that Morley would like to see is not just more inclusion, but action.

“We can include people in groups and clubs, but what they might need is a referral for a job, an exercise partner, or friend. I think identifying a person’s true need and filling it can make our lives richer and the lives of people with disabilities.”

Special Olympics International Board Chair, Timothy Shriver speaks to attendees at the Global Golisano Health Leadership Awards.

Although Morley has now retired as Senior Community Health Specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department, she will continue to advocate through her volunteer work.

“I’ll continue to be a clinical director for health promotion for Special Olympics Montana and I have a lot of contacts in the community that I can recruit as well as working with the new personnel as the health department to keep encouraging inclusion for people of all abilities as well as race, creed and color.”