Children with intellectual disabilities cycled, played basketball and football with other athletes and their coaches on the first day of a summer camp organised by the UAE Special Olympics in Dubai on Monday.
For Areej Ehab, 19, it was a new experience she enjoyed as she smiled pedalling on a stationary bike along with others in a room filled with music.
“This is really the first time for her. We had given up on cycling because we have never been able to manage before on a bike. But here there were people who encouraged her and understood her abilities so they kept trying. It was a revelation that she could cycle and liked it,” said Heba Maarouf, Areej’s mother.
At Dubai Sports World, Areej — who has a development and behavioural condition — was gently encouraged to place her feet into pedal straps to support her movement.
Like other parents who accompanied their children to the event, Ms Maarouf said they would return for the programme that runs once a week until end-July.
“She will want to come here every Monday. She wants to do something different during the day, she likes meeting and interacting with other people. These events are so important for children like Areej, it makes their day. Otherwise it is difficult during this time of year to find something for them to do because not all summer camps will take our kids,” Ms Maarouf said.
About 30 people with intellectual disabilities will be mentored and trained as part of the six-week programme.
Mubarak Al Darmaki, a member of the UAE Special Olympics basketball team, was keen to play instead of answering questions about the sport.
“I play basketball, I like basketball too much. I like scoring,” he counted out on his fingers before heading back to shoot some hoops.
The camp aims to integrate people with intellectual disabilities using sport.
Standing on the sidelines and watching her son cycle, Susan said sporting gatherings were essential.
“You see a big difference; they seem to wake up. It’s as if he is more excited and more engaged. Our children don’t often get the opportunity to go to sports events like this. This is great to introduce them to different activities and good for their social skills because they meet other people,” she said about 19-year-old Sean, who has autism.
Mohammed Raed, 7, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, usually plays with his older brother at home.
His father, Riyaz Ahmed, was happy to see him responsive to trainers when asked for high fives and agreeing to join a group of children who jogged and pushed a modified chair bike around the arena.
“This was an opportunity and very beneficial for Mohammed to play near people he didn’t know,” Mr Ahmed said.
Sulaiman Al Hammadi, team director the Al Wathba Cycling Team, said members were keen to volunteer at the camp.
“Our message to the children is that we believe in you. We want to tell them that they can also participate and compete. We are all part of the same community and society and we strongly believe that there should be more involvement and exposure for these children and their families so they understand we are behind them,” he said.
The Special Olympics IX Mena Games that were hosted by the UAE in March, and the Special Olympics, to be held in Abu Dhabi next year, are crucial to spreading awareness and breaking down stigma associated with people with special needs.
“Sports is special because it opens up all doors and allows people to do things together,” said Nick Watson, who participates in races, obstacle competitions and triathlons with his teenage son Rio as part of Team Angel Wolf.
Rio has a rare chromosome disorder that affects his speech and motor skills. His father swims while pulling Rio in a kayak and races while pushing him in a specially designed chair.
“Bringing the games to the region is amazing. Having community events where people and schoolchildren can volunteer and spend time with children with disabilities is important leading up to the games so more get to participate in sport with these children.”