Sports lovers with and without disabilities can get on the same team in celebration of the Special Olympics World Games coming to the UAE.
Organisers of the global event are using the unifying power of sport to break down barriers and promote inclusion in all sections of society.
People are being given the chance sign up to play team sports such as football, volleyball and basketball alongside athletes with intellectual disabilities during the games.
It is part of a larger goal to bring people of all abilities together even after the Olympic torch is carried to a new city, said Tala Al Ramahi, chief strategy officer of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.
“One of the main objectives is for people in the community to realise that these are real people with aspirations, that they are real athletes," said Ms Al Ramahi.
“There is still a perception that people with intellectual disabilities are able to achieve some things, but only within the network of people like them. This is where we have work to do.”
She said this mindset can only be changed by giving people of all abilities the chance to play sports and interact on a more regular basis.
“Many people will be playing sports with someone with an intellectual disability for the first time. They may be apprehensive in the beginning.
"They may underestimate the skill of our athletes and think they need special assistance but once they meet them, these perceptions will wash away.”
Doubles tennis is another sport that the assembled crowd can register to play with athletes with intellectual disabilities, in the non-competitive section of the games.
Details about timings and venues for the matches will soon be made available on the games' website, www.abudhabi2019.org
Unified games will also be a feature of the competitive section, with UAE athletes with intellectual disabilities will be on the same team as regular athletes, under the 'Play Unified' slogan.
“Play Unified is a big component of the Special Olympics movement where athletes with and without disabilities will compete on the same team. This is instrumental in changing attitudes,” Ms Al Ramahi said.
It marks the first year that athletes with intellectual disabilities of various nationalities residing in the country will be part of the UAE delegation.
“We want to ensure true inclusion regardless of nationality. We are very excited that we have triathletes and tennis players competing who are residents of the UAE,” she said.
With a 320-strong team, the UAE will be the largest competing nation and for the first time will participate in each of the 24 individual and team sports.
Another section of the eagerly-awaited festival of sport will be aimed at children with intellectual disabilities aged three and above, to encourage families to get their children to enjoy the outdoors.
“This is a chance to reach mothers and fathers who need a sense of community. Parents are overwhelmed and don’t know where to go for the right guidance. Many probably don’t realise they can take their child to play a sport,” Ms Al Ramahi said.
Outside of the games, more than 150 public and private schools will be involved in similar programmes to bring young athletes together.
Before the MENA games held in Abu Dhabi last year, walks were also organised to promote a healthy lifestyle.
Reflecting the commitment of UAE leaders, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, took part in the inaugural Walk Unified in January last year in Abu Dhabi’s Umm Al Emarat Park to integrate people with intellectual disabilities in community events.
Organisers are also addressing the paucity of data in the region on disability issues.
A ‘Regional Disabilities Perception Survey’ will be released on the eve of the games that seeks to address misconceptions, frame policy recommendations and record the aspirations of people with intellectual disabilities.
A preview released in December last year found that most people believed athletes with intellectual disabilities were best suited in teams with similar disabilities and not on teams with regular players.
“Before hosting the MENA games, many sports programmes didn’t accept people with intellectual disabilities because they didn’t know how to deal with them. The survey highlights challenges and with the right opportunities, there will be more inclusion,” Ms Al Ramahi said.