The flame carried by athletes through the streets of the UAE capital this week and used to light a cauldron at Louvre Abu Dhabi, marking the beginning of the Special Olympics IX Mena Games, shines a light on this country's extraordinary vision to promote inclusivity at all levels. Abu Dhabi will be the first place in the Middle East and North Africa region to host the Special Olympics World Games next year, a prospect which is exciting, daunting and nerve-racking, and this week's event, in which more than 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 31 countries will compete, is a forerunner to that world first.
After years of feeling hopeless and discouraged by the lack of opportunities for people of determination to practice sport, I finally feel as if I have been given a shot of hope recharging my entire body, sending it into shockwaves of happiness and filling it with an overdose of courage.
With these events, the UAE intends to promote improvement in sport at all levels, diminish barriers and prioritise people with different abilities. That will reveal new opportunities and pave the way for people like me to participate, not only in the classroom but also on the sports field and in stadiums. I still remember my parents' struggle to find me a school that would fit my physical needs in the year 2000, when a rare neurological disorder first affected my ability to walk and meant I had to start using a wheelchair. Now, with all the improvements in the education, jobs and sport sectors, I doubt there is such a thing as impossible.
Unexpectedly, I was prepared for this moment by my very inclusive public school, Umm Ammar High School for Girls. Our PE lessons were run by the Al Bayariq programme, a joint venture between the UAE Armed Forces, the Ministry of Education and Abu Dhabi police. I had to wear a military uniform and take part in several activities that I never thought I would be able to participate in. For instance, I had to pretend to survive a plane crash, where a mat represented the aeroplane and as it crashed, the mat was repeatedly folded in half and myself and my classmates had to find a way to “stay afloat” on whichever bit was left exposed. I had to defend myself against balls being thrown at me repeatedly, learn how to load and clean heavy weapons and when the commanding officer barked orders to march left, then right, I had to manoeuvre my wheelchair in sync with my classmates. Some activities were beyond me, such as being able to shoot a weapon, but as daunting as the experience was, it prepared me to live my life to the fullest and not be so dependent or needy. I might not have appreciated it at the time but the things I learned as part of the programme were priceless and the fact I was given no concessions or special treatment made me who I am today. When we marched and I had to salute the flag in uniform, to the tune of the national anthem, it was the proudest moment of my life and reminded me of those who sleep less at night just for us to sleep better.
After leaving school, I tried to remain active by swimming but not every pool is adapted for special needs and it is hard to get in and out, so I quit. However, Al Bayariq taught me leadership skills and a survival instinct to put into practice beyond school walls, where not everyone is as supportive or understanding. The Special Olympics are testament to the faith that our leaders have in their people, as they work together as one whole to bring their inclusive dream to life, despite our differing abilities. Seeing is believing and now that I see the Special Olympics with my own eyes, held in my home town, I believe that a change is coming and that it will be beautiful. The UAE is not just a dreamer, it is also a doer that has laws protecting the rights of people with different abilities. Very soon, those lucid dreams I once had will be a reality that I wake up to tomorrow.
The Special Olympics will be a visual testimony of Abu Dhabi's boundless capabilities of hosting events as it sends a message of can-do and will-do to the world to demonstrate its readiness for change and its credible reputation as a host, which will open the door for future events to be held here. It will also ensure that the 2019 Special Olympics will have the best skilled athletes representing the UAE, like Mohammed Al Tajer, who will be competing in the equestrian event, and Butti Al Shezawi, who will compete in basketball, for a greater chance at whisking those gold medals away. Who knows – this could inspire Abu Dhabi to establish its own team of empowered Paralympians.
Sport is more than just exercise for the body; it is our way of coping with stress and relaxing. The chances of a person with a different ability practising sports are still low, as many facilities in the UAE are not yet equipped to cater to the needs of people with different abilities. However, some places are better prepared. Abu Dhabi Corniche, for example, has floating chairs available to physically challenged people, allowing them to get in the water safely and move as freely as a bird. Even for the fully abled, sporting opportunities are still limited in the capital but perhaps with time, more will become available.
For a person with a physical challenge like me (particularly if you have been similarly cursed with a sweet tooth, a big appetite and an obsession with cheese), staying active is crucial for survival and longer life expectancy. The UAE is facing several serious health crises, such as obesity, which affects nearly half of UAE residents and one in five children under the age of 11, and diabetes, affecting nearly one million people in the UAE.
Finding an inclusive place to work out is hard and time is against us, as the less we work out, the more baggage our bodies will have to carry and the crankier we will get. Having inclusive gyms that caters to all needs, so individuals can work out according to their different capabilities and learn to communicate, is essential, as it will serve the country in the long run and help combat major diseases. This will also be a chance to create an inclusive community, where gaps in society will be bridged and people become more knowledgeable about differing abilities. It will create one big, tolerant society.
I would also like to see China’s model copied here. People from diverse backgrounds in China cannot always afford gym memberships so they use free exercise machines in community parks at night to stay fit and healthy. Dubai is leading the way with similar exercise machines in Jumeirah Beach Residence and I hope the rest of the emirates follow for a healthier UAE, as it will save countless lives. Think of it as an early investment in people for a better reward in the future.
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Being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing as you will stand out easily and be more memorable, which is your first victory. I take high pride in who I am today. I am not a sporty person but if I were, I would choose hand cycling, as I loved cycling while growing up and when I fell ill, I never thought I would be able to cycle again. The availability of adaptive hand cycles across the world has made me hope that one day I will be able to practise hand cycling in the UAE. Who knows, I might awaken the para-cyclist that has been sleeping in me.
The UAE is a country that faced many challenges and learned to create its own way to thrive and flourish. It has complete faith in its people, whatever their ability, to stand out and bring their A-game, as they raise the bar of success and show the world that nothing is impossible as long as you believe in yourself.