Whenever an international sporting event rolls into town, there is always plenty of conversation about the power of competition to inspire and unite people. Another often-used word is “legacy”. Typically, it is employed to refer to the way that watching elite athletes frequently influences everyday people to participate in sport at a grassroots level. This is obviously a good thing, given that regular exercise helps to keep us both healthier and happier.
The legacy of the Special Olympics World Games, which open today in Abu Dhabi, will be even more important.
In one light, the Games can be viewed as a celebration of inclusion, where participation counts even more than glory. In another, they can be seen as a global sporting competition, in which athletes will battle it out for gold medals. Not everyone will end up on the podium, of course. But anyone with the guts, drive and discipline to represent their country on the world stage is a winner. And not just on the track or tennis court.
These qualities can be translated to every aspect of life. Hopefully, the Special Olympics World Games will help to change perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities in the UAE and the Middle East region. Disability, in whatever form, is not a tragedy or something to fear. It is simply a fact of life. Similarly, those who live with disabilities are neither heroes nor victims. Like the rest of us, they are simply people moving through the world as best they can.
This is particularly relevant, given that in countries with life expectancies of more than 70 years, the average person will spend 11.5 per cent of their life – a full eight years – living with some form of disability.
It is estimated that around 200 million people around the world live with intellectual disabilities. And yet, the community is hugely under-represented in both the media and public life. The Special Olympics, however, boasts six million athletes and one million volunteers across 169 countries.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Games is that sports such as basketball, volleyball and football will have competitions that feature unified teams, comprising people with and without intellectual disabilities. What better way to challenge stubborn and baseless prejudices than that?
Research also suggests a significant link between participation in the Games and individual employment prospects. Official figures have shown that more than half of adult Special Olympics World Games athletes in the United States have jobs. That is a far higher proportion than the overall number of people with intellectual disabilities in the workforce.
Here in the UAE, the Government is already doing its bit, with national initiatives in health, education, culture and sport already in place. Now, the private sector has the chance to follow suit and play its part in establishing a truly inclusive society.
Private institutions only stand to benefit from the integration of people with intellectual disabilities into all walks of life. From schools and colleges to all manner of other public-facing businesses, experience can be enriched for everyone by creating a working environment that mirrors the reality of the outside world.
The Special Olympics World Games have the potential to lay the foundations of what the country and wider region can be 20 years from now, in terms of opportunity, accessibility and diversity.
Like everywhere else in the world, attitudes in the region still need to improve. When it comes to issues of representation and inclusion, there will always be lessons for wider society to learn.
This is where a movement such as the Special Olympics comes into its own, starting important conversations and providing a platform from which to launch partnerships in education, the media and culture at large.
It is said that once someone is part of the Special Olympics, the movement never lets go of them. The reverse can also be said. Organisations that forge relationships with the Special Olympics tend to make long-term commitments. What's more, employees who become involved with its programmes say that they benefit considerably from the experience.
Will we in the UAE be able to say the same thing once the Games are over? I believe so and look forward to a brighter and more inclusive future, in which we are all winners.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor in chief at The National