Special Olympics broke down barriers for people with intellectual disabilities, UAE survey finds

New findings reflect changing attitudes across the Emirates after the global event was held in Abu Dhabi last year

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A new study commissioned by the Local Organising Committee of the Special Olympics World Games - which polled more than 655 residents across the UAE – reveals the positive impact the event has had on changing the country’s perception towards people with intellectual disabilities.

The survey, conducted three months after the games in March 2019, by Nielsen, a data analytics company, tried gauging if watching athletes with disabilities compete had broadened the outlook of citizens and residents in the country.

"Global research shows that one of the biggest challenges in promoting an inclusion agenda is community perception. Every school teacher needs to believe that a person with intellectual disability belongs in her classroom, else it'll be very hard to promote inclusive education," Tala Al Raamahi, chief strategy officer of the Special Olympics World Games told The National.

“The same applies to medical professionals who may not be aware of the challenges people with intellectual disabilities face. This study gives us reassurance that there is greater awareness and positive perception towards people with intellectual disabilities. It will fast-track the inclusion efforts in the UAE.”

About 56 per cent of the participants, in the 18 to 60+ year group, were interviewed face-to-face either in Arabic or English and they said there has been a significant improvement in attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities.

This number improved to 70 per cent when the same question was asked of people who had volunteered and participated alongside athletes in unified sports activities held during the games.

“When we broke down the data and looked at the reactions of people who volunteered, participated or attended the games, the figures drastically improve and that directly shows the power of engagement,” Ms Al Ramahi said

More than 7,000 athletes from across the world participated in sports such as football, swimming, equestrian, athletics and boxing.

Before the Olympics kicked in, families of the athletes had hoped that the games would remove the stigma that some still associate with disabilities.

The study reflects a major breakthrough in the understanding of the rights of people of determination.

The post-Olympics findings contrast with a survey conducted before the games when respondents were questioned whether people with intellectual disabilities had the right to marry and have children.

In the pre-games study, 48 per cent of people in the community believed people with intellectual disabilities could marry and have kids but this went up to 57 per cent, post the games.

Contrasting the surveys has helped plot the change for the organisers.

The new findings also show a softening of the barriers with a drop in the percentage of people who felt that intellectual disabilities were an obstacle to inclusion at work, in schools and in the community.

Fewer people felt the attitude of co-workers would hinder the growth of people with determination with a drop from 27 per cent to 19 per cent.

Similarly, fewer people felt student perceptions would be a major obstacle to accepting people with intellectual disabilities with a drop from 22 per cent to 16 per cent.

This study gives us reassurance that there is greater awareness and positive perception toward people with intellectual disabilities

The attitude of neighbours, which was perceived as a stumbling block, fell from 21 per cent to 13 per cent indicating a vast improvement of overall attitudes of the society towards people of determination.

The Special Olympics World Games was hosted in Abu Dhabi in March 2019, marking the first time the event was held in the Middle East since it was founded more than 50 years ago.

The Crown Prince Court led the winning bid efforts with a mission to promote positive social change for people with intellectual disabilities and create a more inclusive society.

The Special Olympics is the world’s largest humanitarian sporting event and a global movement which focuses on the empowerment of people of determination with intellectual disabilities through the power of sport.