World Special Olympics 2019: Inclusivity to be the star here
Officials and athletes during the final stage of Flame of Hope lighting ceremony at Martyrs' Memorial. - Photo: Dubai Media Office
7,500 athletes from 190 nations take centre stage and showcase their sporting skills from March 14 to 21.
World Special Olympics hosted by Abu Dhabi could be a gamechanger for a more inclusive society, parents of determined children and specialists in the field are hoping.
When 7,500 athletes from 190 nations - all specially abled - take centre stage and showcase their sporting skills from March 14 to 21, inclusivity will be the star, said Layan Juma, occupational therapist at Stars for Special Abilities and Early Intervention Centre in Abu Dhabi.
"When people go for the Special Olympics, they are not just going to watch the athletes. They are going to merge with them. That is what will change perceptions.
"It is going to be a wake-up call for those parents who are still living in denial. They will see for themselves what determined people can achieve if they are given the right support."
Juma said in the nine years of her practice, she has seen parents who are reluctant to admit and accept that their children are specially-abled. "I think that will change when they see how children from across the world overcame obstacles to become role models for others." Juma said Special Olympics also give a strong message of inclusion.
"Inclusion is not about labelling kids. It is about accepting them. That is what I tell parents. When you go and watch the games, they have to understand that it is not a show of determined people. Some people are different but we are all one community. That is important to understand," said Juma.
According to a study on regional disabilities perception commissioned by the Local Organising Committee for the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, in partnership with Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa office, more people are aware of government initiatives in the UAE compared to other social aspects like divorce and unemployment.
The study titled 'Regional Perceptions and Determined Aspirations', conducted across eight countries in the Middle East, found that the UAE government is leading the disability support in the Middle East and North Africa region.
One of the findings of the study said that the Gulf countries are paving the way for a more receptive work environment for people with intellectual disabilities.
The study recommended that education and workplace environment should be more inclusive and supportive communities for parents and caretakers of people with disabilities should be created.
Some parents who spoke to Khaleej Times said though perceptions are changing in the society toward people of determination, there is still much to aspire for.
Saleem Parker, an Indian parent of a specially-abled 16-year-old, said he hopes Special Olympics will lead to policy changes that will end discrimination of determined people.
"I can tell you... My daughter has suffered. She could not get admitted to many educational institutes as they do not accept expat children. My request to authorities are not to differentiate. Special needs children are just special needs children, whichever nationality they are of," said Parker, a long-time resident of Abu Dhabi.
His daughter Saaima Parker has Down Syndrome and ADHD. She also has severe mobility issues, heart problems and brain damage.
"Her condition is severe now. She is at home. But, if she got adequate help and training, I think my daughter could have improved," said Parker. However, he said various initiatives by the government to support people of determination with special health insurance and government cards that will give them access to various services, are commendable.
An Arab parent, who wished not to be named, said he hoped the Special Olympics will result in major policy changes in the country to make the society more inclusive.
"There is a need for more awareness for sure. We also need policies to push inclusivity in all walk of life - from education, transportation, access, employment, health and even entertainment."