Community football group PASS kicks off partnership with Special Olympics UAE

Programme starts in Abu Dhabi in September and will team up children of all abilities

A football programme that pairs children with special needs with their peers will kick off again in September.

This time it will be co-run with the Special Olympics UAE.

Founded by the community coaching company PASS Abu Dhabi in 2019, the programme gathers groups from different schools to play “unified football”, where almost half of each team is made up of players with special needs.

The teams train individually but meet for league matches at the end of every month.

“We invite the schools to come down to Zayed Sports City and we organise an afternoon of friendly matches,” said Seth Amoafo, founder of PASS.

“At the end of it they receive a medal, and a month after they come again and we do the same.”

In 2019, about 60 pupils aged seven and above from five schools took part in the programme.

This year, the aim is to expand the project with the support of the Special Olympics UAE, bringing in more young people to play alongside children with special needs.

"I felt there were other people and organisations who were very interested but did not know about the programme," said Mr Amoafo who grew up in Ghana, qualified as a Uefa coach in the UK in 2002, and moved to the UAE in 2009.

“We know that there are many who are passionate about working with people of determination, and we just need to create the platform for them.”

A legacy of the Special Olympics

Unified Football 2019
In last year's league, 60 pupils aged seven and above participated from five schools. Courtesy, PASS Abu Dhabi

The phrase "people of determination" was coined during the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi in 2019.

The UAE has placed a focus on inclusivity since hosting the 10-day event, which brought together more than 7,000 athletes from 200 countries for a show of strength in the face of adversity.

Unified sports competitions took place in 15 disciplines, the most in the history of the event.

The plan for Pass this year is to hold sessions on Hudayriat Island and to include children aged seven to 15 who do not belong to football clubs.

Occasionally, older pupils will be included, depending on their aptitude.

“In football there is no barrier to age. No matter how old you are you can all play together,” said Mr Amoafo.

Russell McKie, a PE teacher at Repton School who joined the programme with his pupils in 2019, said the unified games worked out very well.

He said coaches and pupils were encouraged to not distinguish between the players despite their differences, and not to give special treatment to those with special needs.

“They all wore the same uniform and passed the ball to the player in the right position – that is how we set the programme and that is how we worked it,” said Mr McKie.

"They are all part of the same team. It doesn’t matter who touches the ball or scores or takes a penalty, they are just playing football.

“Some of my players did not even know they were PODs because it wasn’t highlighted to them before the match.”

Mr McKie said he was looking forward to the new season, and hoped to see more schools get involved and more programmes for girls with special needs.

The importance of inclusivity for parents and pupils

Yousef Al Arar, with his coach Russell during the last league. Courtesy, Muna Sadaqa
Yousef Al Arar, with his coach Russell during the last league. Courtesy, Muna Sadaqa

Muna Sadaqa, whose son Yousef Al Arar, 11, was part of the Repton School team in the past league, said the games gave him a chance to play with other children.

“When he played with the other children it was very important for him, because he has no siblings at home,” said the Palestinian-Jordanian, whose son has a light level of autism.

“And as parents we used to meet and share experiences, it is very important to be able to be able to seek guidance from parents with the same circumstances.”

She said she preferred inclusive programmes, because when high-functioning special needs children like her son only mix with similar pupils, their condition can deteriorate.

Philip Clarke, from the UK, said he was happy to find a way for his non-special needs son, Alex, to mix with “PODs”.

“Alex is eight and we've been in Abu Dhabi since he was born, and he has been part of the PASS programme since he was three,” said the strategic services chief.

“Our job as parents is to help our children mix with kids with special needs, and it was a great way for him to see the world through a different lens.

“Alex understood that unified football was different to normal football, and he played and he built a trust relationship with the team.

"It was great to see that any initial obstacles were removed."

He said the league helped his son understand that “while we may be different, at the end we are all the same".

Mr Clarke and Mrs Sadaqa said they were looking forward to enrolling their sons in the coming season.

Interested participants can join the programme by emailing community@specialolympics.ae.

In pictures: Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019

Updated: May 21, 2021 11:47 AM

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