An Emirati sprinter loves running so much that she says her legs hurt when she is not on the track.
Hamda Al Hosani has 15 Special Olympic medals to her name and will represent the UAE in the regional games next month.
Altering the attitude of people is what drives the 29-year-old athlete.
“In the Middle East, people look at intellectual disabilities as a bad thing but I want to change that negative perception,” she said.
“I’m a very active person, I don’t like sitting still that’s why I love running. If I sit down for a long period of time I feel like my legs are hurting because I just want to run."
She is among 177 Emirati athletes with developmental disabilities competing in the games that start on March 14.
Hamda hopes that with the UAE hosting the championship, more children will be motivated to find a sport they enjoy.
“I would like to encourage everyone with intellectual disabilities to look out for what they are interested in and to do more activities that boost their confidence. I have a friend who played on the basketball team and I encouraged her to join the sprint team.”
She lists the 2015 Los Angeles games as her favourite because she bagged a gold medal in the sprints with athletes from 180 countries participating.
Refusing to allow her disability to be a barrier, Hamda also plays football, basketball and was on the equestrian team.
Athletes with learning and cognitive disabilities will compete across 16 sports at the Mena Special Olympics including swimming, football, equestrian and table tennis.
The games next month are a dry run for the World Special Olympic Games that will be held in the UAE next year.
Parents like Hamda’s mother Zaafaran are keen to speak up and persuade the community to accept the children.
She urged parents to turn up at events with family and friends to cheer their children instead of always sending them with the maids.
“My message to every parent with a child with intellectual disabilities is to encourage their children to not only take part in the Special Olympics but to be there at every single event and competition with them,” said Zaafaran who drops Hamda and her sister, who also has an intellectual disability, daily for training.
“There are usually parents’ meetings and get-togethers where only few parents attend and the kids always seem to be with their maids – there is no moral support for them. Kids with intellectual disabilities really need their parents’ support in order to succeed.”
Recalling the challenges the family faced when Hamda was younger, Zaafaran said her daughter stopped attending school in grade six when she found it difficult to walk.
“We figured out Hamda had a disability when she was 2-3 months old. As she got older, her body was collapsing, she was struggling to walk and function physically. She had to stop going to school as her condition got worse and her school said they could not educate her any longer,” she said.
After staying home for two years, Hamda’s mother encouraged her to sign up for the Special Olympics team since she enjoyed running.
There was no looking back for Hamda, then 13, after she signed up.
“It gave Hamda a lot of confidence and allowed her to meet new people and forge friendships with people from all over the world. Hamda is now a much stronger person than ever. She has also had the opportunity to travel to so many different countries through Special Olympics,” her mother said.
Hamda trains at least two hours a day and sport has given her a sense of purpose and achievement.
“When I stopped going to school I stayed at home for a long time. My mother encouraged me to join Special Olympics UAE. I joined the basketball team and was new to it but the tutor told me they felt I knew how to lead the team and choose me to have that responsibility,” Hamda said.
“I joined a number of sports teams and tried different sports which gave me confidence before focussing on sprinting.”