The nation will host the Special Olympics World Games in 2019, in a testament to how successful it has been in ensuring special needs people are catered for.
Two years from now, residents with intellectual disabilities will be cheered on by a home crowd as they take to the podium to claim their medals.
In March 2019, the Special Olympics – the world’s largest sporting event of its kind – is coming to Abu Dhabi.
The event is a victory for the UAE’s special needs community in many ways. For starters, it will be the first time that the week-long games will be held in the Middle East.
“The awarding of the World Games was based on the country’s vision in creating inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities,” says Special Olympics chief executive Mary Davis.
Meanwhile, on February 18, Enable, a social entrepreneurship initiative by landscaping company Desert Group, is holding an Inclusion Fair in Dubai in an attempt to help more people with special needs join the workforce.
There, 22 special needs participants will exhibit their products – which including kitchenware and art – for businesses to assess the potential of these small firms for investment.
Enable’s Emirati general manager, Reem Al Ghaith, says she sees a shift to inclusion by corporations.
Reem Al Ghaith, general manager of Enable UAE. Victor Besa for The National
“People with special needs are joining the workforce and creating their own products, which wasn’t happening in the UAE 10 years ago,” she says.
“In the past, families didn’t know what to do with people with special needs.
“More people are talking about the subject now and trying to work out solutions. We see parents forming societies and communities. There is also a lot more awareness within the government and the private sector.”
Companies that have employed staff with mild cognitive disabilities in recent years include Emirates Catering, Union Coop supermarket, Emirates NBD bank, furniture store The One and Abu Dhabi Police.
In November, Emirates NBD bank launched The Careers Network under its #TogetherLimitless advocacy campaign to build a database of people with cognitive disabilities and help them find job placements.
Ms Al Ghaith says that sports are instrumental to the 32 special needs employees at Enable, most of them athletes in the UAE’s national team.
“We see for ourselves how sports enhances their productivity,” says Ms Al Ghaith.
Two of the company’s florists, Hareb Mohamed Ali Malaalh, 31, and Salah Essa Elqassab, 27, are Special Olympics champions who have flown to Egypt, the US, Greece and Australia to take part in the Games.
Hareb Malaalh, who has cognitive disabilities and is an 800 and 1,500-metre runner
“When I see my photo in the newspaper, I can’t describe my feeling of full happiness,” says Mr Malaalh.
Mr Elqassab, who is also in the UAE Special Olympics handball team and a long jumper, says taking part in sports motivates him.
“I work on developing my physical fitness and I try to demonstrate courage in all aspects of life,” he says.
There has been a lot of support in the UAE for Paralympic athletes, boosted by the UAE team’s 7 medal haul at last year’s games in Rio.
But Sara Baker, programme head at Dubai Autism Centre and secretary-general of the UAE Tennis Federation, says awareness for those with intellectual disabilities needs to be higher.
Sara Baker, programme manager at the Dubai Autism Centre. Photo courtesy Dubai Autism Center
“When you ask people in society about disabilities, they always think of physical disabilities,” she says.
“But there are mental disabilities that don’t actually physically show. Those people can also be productive in anything – whether it’s sport, education, or the workforce.”
Ms Baker admits that there has been social awkwardness about autism in the past.
“A lot of families didn’t want to bring their kids for diagnosis and kept them at home. Even after diagnosis, nobody in the family would know about it.
“They wouldn’t even tell the school. It’s a scary thing, because you have to keep explaining your child’s behaviour to strangers in the supermarket and the mall for fear of being judged.”
These days, Ms Baker says that parents are coming to the centre earlier, “even parents with six month-old babies”.
“The Government is telling people not to shy away from this because the earlier you catch a cognitive disability, the better the outcome,” she says.
The Dubai Autism Centre has helped one of their former students get work for the first time since being founded in 2001.
“He’s just started a paid job in IT,” says Ms Baker.
Rana Atassi, who has a 10-year-old autistic son, last year opened Modern Alternative Education school in Dubai for children with mild cognitive disabilities.
She worries that without workplace opportunities, those with special needs can end up trapped in an unhealthy lifestyle.
“I think our biggest fear as parents is for our children to end up at home watching TV all day. That’s what’s happened in the past,” she says.
“A lot of children don’t have friends to go to the park with or after school clubs to join and end up with weight issues that affect their health.”
Ms Atassi is making sure that her son, Jad, stays active by enrolling him in Dubai Challengers League baseball club for children with special needs, which also helps him to develop his social skills.
“He learns team-building, turn-taking, acknowledging winning and losing,” she says. “Bonding is important, too.”
Several other sports clubs have been launched to cater to people with special needs, including Abu Dhabi Harlequins Try Rugby club, and Riding for the Disabled in the Desert Palm Resort in Dubai, and some mainstream sports clubs are also accept them as members.
Renate Baur-Richter, whose 20-year-old son Vincent has Down syndrome, was surprised to find sports clubs in Abu Dhabi were happy to have Vincent on their team.
“He was adopted for five months by a football group made up of professional young men. It wasn’t out of pity, Vincent just became one of the team.”
Vincent plays golf with a regular junior golf class and basketball at a mainstream facility four times a week.
“The problem sometimes is that families don’t really reach out for inclusive sports activities, they’re always looking for something exclusive,” says Ms Baur-Richter.
“There’s a misconception by parents about lack of opportunities because they don’t trust that their children can participate in regular activities.”
Dubai resident Nick Watson also has his son involved in mainstream sports, but in a rather different manner.
Nick Watson and his son Rio compete in races around the UAE every weekend. Courtesy Nick Watson
Rio, 14, who has a rare disease called 1q44 deletion syndrome, which affects his gross and fine motor skills, takes part in races around the UAE every weekend with his dad, as part of Team Angel Wolf.
At last weekend’s Ironman Dubai, Mr Watson pulled his son in a kayak, then on a special bike, then pushed him in a wheelchair for the final 21-kilometre run.
“If we can become role models, then it might inspire people who have children with disabilities to think ‘if Rio can do that, then our son or daughter can potentially be a part of the Special Olympics’,” says Mr Watson.
On weekdays, Mr Watson visits schools across the UAE to tell his family’s story to children– about 12,000 in the past year, he says.
“I tell them how we have coped. I think it is important for children to understand that there are others out there who are ‘differently abled’.
“We are seeing a lot more people with disabilities out in the shopping malls and parks in the UAE.”