When the Special Olympics Mena Games kick off on Wednesday there will be plenty of lessons to be learnt by all.
Hosting the world’s largest sporting event for people with intellectual disabilities next year and a regional version of the games this week could provoke a complete shift in attitude among some and show how perseverance can pay off.
A coach training the UAE basketball team for the Special Olympics says he has already learnt focus and patience from the athletes.
“They are very focused; you don’t have to teach them that. You learn a lot from them about patience and hard work. It is also a lot of fun working with them and I don’t find it hard work at all,” says Hisham Farouq, sports supervisor at the Sharjah Centre for Humanitarian Services.
Mr Farouq has worked with Special Olympics teams for the past 15 years.
“Once they have understood the game, they like being on the court all the time, we have to tell them to stop. It also sends a very good message to the community about how determined they are as sports people.”
The team usually practices four times a week and is currently in training at least twice a day at an ongoing camp in Al Ain.
It is important to steer children with intellectual disabilities toward sport from age four to six onwards, says Mr Farouq.
“Depending on their level and ability when they are young they can start with ball play on the floor and then move to the bocce game. Some move onto football, swimming, tennis, table tennis when they are eight or 10. You start by putting small goals and low baskets when teaching them to dribble and shoot. But they pick up quickly,” he says.
Bocce is among the games taught to children with development disabilities to give them the opportunity to connect with others and gain self-confidence. The main principle in the game is to roll a bocce ball closest to the target.
Early initiation into sport helps with motor development, health and fitness and prepares them for competition at all levels.
Before games begin at the Special Olympics, athletes are placed in different divisions based on their ability and skill.
“When they keep playing and start winning medals, they are so proud of their achievement. My players have won in games in Los Angeles, Athens, Cairo and Morocco,” says Mr Farouq.
Hosting the games in the UAE will awaken parents and care givers to the opportunities open to their young charges, experts say.
Inspired by the games, some centres such as Al Noor and Tender Hearts Arena are working with mainstream schools so their pupils play sports and participate in activities with special needs children.
“The very fact that the games are coming here brings into people’s awareness what people with special needs can achieve. They will realise it’s not just athletes with physical disabilities but people with mental challenges participating,” says Isphana Al Khatib, director of the Al Noor Training Centre.
“This exercise will build into the psyche of the UAE and the local community about the capability and talent of people with cognitive challenges. It raises an understanding in the general population that there is a possibility of these young adults being everywhere and doing everything.”
The games will also bring to the fore people who have previously been relegated to the background.
“This population is marginalised and these events will bring them to centre stage. They are not to be put in a corner but with right opportunities they are perfectly capable of being part of big events. It is a matter or providing a platform and opportunity. It’s a great initiative because it is taking place at a national level,” Ms Al Khatib says.
“It’s a matter of nurturing potential whether it’s a sport or any other talent. If you are viewing them constantly as limited people, then you are closing your mind. But if you constantly look at them as people with potential then you are open to their talent and abilities. This will be a huge step in the right direction.”
Experts say the games will encourage parents to explore sport as an option for all children with disabilities and not just athletes with potential.
“Sport is extremely important for children to develop holistically,” says Niamh O Shea, director for the Pace centre in Dubai where pupils with disabilities have weekly group and individual sports sessions.
“By working in a group, children can develop social skills and learn how to feel part of a team. They can improve in confidence. Sports allows our students opportunities for success that they may not have within a classroom environment.”