Together in the field of play: how group sports can encourage children with special needs

Group sports are a great way for disabled children to build confidence, skills and also make friends. We explore the growing number of options.
Relationships are built on the field, and not just between humans, during sessions at Riding for the Disabled Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National
Relationships are built on the field, and not just between humans, during sessions at Riding for the Disabled Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National

The social, emotional and physical benefits of sport are what drive many of us to lace up our trainers and hit the gym, road, trail or court – and the same positives apply to those less physically able.

Disability is not a barrier to achievement, as qualifying 2016 Rio Paralympics wheelchair racing champions, Mohammed Al Hammadi and Salim Al Shehhi, and discus champion, Siham Al Rashidi, all from the UAE, can attest.

“Sports are great for all children. Being part of a team, learning new skills, improved motor skills and coordination, and improved cardiovascular and fitness levels are some of the benefits. Being a part of something bigger and contributing to its success is also great for kids and their families,” says Nanette Wicker-Essick, founder/chief executive of kidsFIRST Medical Center, UAE.

Getting children with special needs involved in sport and engendering a more inclusive environment, is being championed by individuals, government entities, education providers and clubs across the UAE.

One such example is the Dubai Challengers League, which was established in 2011 by 14-year-old Faiz Moosa, whose brother Faraz has Down syndrome, to give special-needs children an opportunity to play baseball with other children.

A long-term volunteer, Wicker-Essick helps train the league’s “buddies”.

“You see amazing relationships being built on the field, and currently we have anywhere from 15 to 30 participating families every weekend, and have signed up 100 or so kids over the years,” she says.

Promoted through word of mouth, as well as to special-needs centres, groups and families in the emirate, this volunteer organisation relies on community support, with Dubai Little League providing uniforms, coaches and player buddies.

Says Wicker-Essick: “We were the first to give kids an opportunity to play in their own league, and since the creation of The Stars team there have been other initiatives launched, including ones for football and tennis, and members of the Boy Scouts Troop 813 even developed the Special Needs Troop 528 as an Eagle Scout.

“Other organisations like Tender Hearts Arena also have activities specifically created for children and young adults.”

The race for awareness

Nick Watson is a qualified personal training and sports therapy expert whose son Rio was born with a rare chromosome disorder and has severe special needs.

He launched the “reaching you” foundation a decade ago to foster awareness of children with special needs within the UAE, and encourage integration. This evolved into #TeamAngelWolf, the banner under which he competes, pushing or carrying Rio, in a series of punishing endurance races and ironman challenges.

Watson’s 10-year campaign has also focused on community initiatives such as the annual Party in the Park, school talks series, as well as one-off challenges such as the 2007 12-man Mount Kinabalu climb, which included two young Emiratis with special needs.

“Within the area of disability in general, we have witnessed much more awareness, acceptance, integration, equality and services over the last 10 years. By 2020, Dubai is aiming to become the world’s most disability-friendly city and we are seeing a strong effort in working to reach this goal from RTA initiatives and government services to the [disabled] community becoming more vocal,” he says.

According to Watson, government-supported initiatives such as the Dubai Club for the Disabled are adding further impetus, and offer many sports activities including football, baseball and horse riding, as well as becoming more accessible through online and social-media presence. “We believe these activities are well attended; some with waiting lists. Without a doubt, if there were more events available that were well-promoted and funded – and this is where corporate support plays a role – then they would also be fully subscribed,” he says.

Through #TeamAngelWolf, Watson is encouraging two-way integration, with people with disabilities volunteering their time at sports/fitness events alongside other volunteers, with the shared goal of getting healthy.

His school and corporate talks series are also adding to the overall impetus, as he explains: “Many schools and companies contact us afterwards to ask what they can they do next to create positive changes themselves. When we race and do other activities – always including Rio – we aim to spread awareness of people of disabilities, to show how integration can work beautifully and how teamwork is vital in life.”

The next series of talks coupled with interactive initiatives and challenges will be rolled out shortly, with three new #TeamAngelWolf programmes also ready for launch.

“The ‘Together We Can’ programme will see a volunteer runner athlete paired with a disabled volunteer for weekly runs using specialised disability running chairs. We also plan to relaunch our ‘Beach Blast’ programme, which brings together mainstream children/adult volunteers and children with disabilities on the beach, for fun games and races using floating wheelchairs,” Watson says.

“Finally, we will launch the ‘Community Tri Together’ programme, which uses the #TeamAngelWolf experience to hopefully inspire members of the local community to take responsibility for their own health by incorporating fitness into their daily lives through group tri sessions at venues such as the Nad Al Sheba bike track, Al Qudra cycle track, the Jumeirah running track and the sea.”

Five clubs to try

Abu Dhabi Sports Club for Special Needs

Sight, hearing and cognitively challenged students can sign up for one-on-one training and a variety of sports disciplines with the club also taking part in local and regional events., 02 558 2884

Abu Dhabi Harlequins Try Rugby programme

Open to all children aged 7-12 years, the annual programme offers an introduction to the sport and is designed to develop gross motor and ball skills and encourage teamwork.

Dubai Challengers League

Open to children of all ages and abilities, this unique baseball league meets at 11.30am every Saturday during the season.

Contact Shalini Moosa at

Riding for the Disabled Dubai

Established in 1998 by Sheikha Hassa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who donated three of her horses, children of varying abilities can sign up for the specialised riding programme.

Tender Hearts Arena

Yoga, dance and martial arts are just a few of the activities on offer at this Umm Suqeim, Dubai, centre, which also offers spring, summer and winter holiday camp programmes.

Published: September 21, 2016 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one