More than 200 private and public schools in the UAE have signed up for a Special Olympics programme that aims to make sports in schools inclusive.
Under the initiative, called The Unified Champion Schools programme, children with and without intellectual disabilities play sports, are part of athletics clubs, engage, train and learn together.
The UCS programme was introduced by Special Olympics UAE in 2019 just before the Covid-19 pandemic and has now been implemented nationwide.
Launched 11 years ago in the United States, the UAE is the first country to implement the UCS programme nationwide in all schools.
All public and private schools of all curriculums are invited to register for the UCS programme.
Khawla Barley, head of initiatives, Special Olympics UAE, said the programme would help create "an inclusive mindset".
“We don’t want people of determination to be in a separate school or a separate football programme or class," she said.
“Where is the best place to really start developing an inclusive mindset? It is at school.
“The pupils take over and we are working to empower pupil leaders to lead inclusive teams and clubs, and make change happen at their own schools.”
She said it was rewarding when pupils came back to her and said they felt they understood disabilities better after playing with children of different abilities.
The programme aims to create an environment of inclusion at schools with clubs planning activities that engage the entire school.
Matthew Thomas, head of physical education at Gems Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis, said the school joined the programme in 2019.
The school, with close to 3,000 pupils enrolled, has about 20-25 athletes with intellectual disabilities.
"We started unified clubs in which pupils with determination and school athletes played as one," said Mr Thomas.
"We started a unified basketball programme and children trained and played together and became friends.
"It (the programme) changed the mindset and made people more compassionate.
"I see people playing now at the school who would never have if they were not part of this project."
The school organised a multi-sports tournament where they had sports leaders at the school working alongside athletes who had intellectual disabilities.
Schools can qualify to become a unified school if at least one sport is offered in a unified manner in a semester.
Schools can progress to becoming a Unified Champion School if they also meet the criteria for having inclusive youth leadership and engaging the whole school.