Public school inclusion programme to ensure Special Olympics legacy endures

Unified Champion Schools programme uses sports and education to connect all pupils

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., March 5, 2019.  Neena Raina, founder of Tender Hearts, an organization that provides therapy through recreation for SEN children, talks about how special Olympics are helping foster initiatives where special needs children work/buddy/play sports/create projects with children who do not have special needs. --  Neena Raina (seated left) and partner, Aarti Khazanchi (seated right) with the chiildren of the centre.
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A programme that pairs public school pupils with and without disabilities for sports will ensure the Special Olympics' message of inclusion endures long after the Games are over, experts say.

Unified Champion Schools uses sports and education to connect pupils in mainstream schools with those in special needs centres and, as of Monday, became mandatory in all public schools.

Experts say the programme could act as a stepping stone towards greater inclusion, and not just in sports.

Dr Rose Kamath, counsellor at Emirates International School in Dubai, said the Special Olympics showed the public that people of determination have many varied talents.

“This has created an awareness in the public that every individual has their own spark,” Dr Kamath said. “We have to see what their abilities are and where their talents lie.

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“Don’t restrict it to sports as sports is just one aspect. It could be art, music, dance. I have seen children who are very talented and their artwork is at the top level.

“Other children wear hearing aids and are amazing dancers. It’s about discovering the talents and strengths.”

She said the programme should also be open to private schools.

“If it is open to private schools and if the schools incorporating this are recognised publicly, others will buy into the idea,” Dr Kamath said.

She said that teacher training was the key to changing perceptions and further improving inclusion.

December 10, 2017.   Studentsf rom Ambassador school with students with disabilities from Tender Hearts school. (black)  Jifu a student from Tender Hearts shoots the ball.
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Teachers should be taught sign language or trained in techniques to interact with pupils of various disabilities.

Emirates International School has been running a programme since 2008. During the week, children with disabilities come in and join the pupils in cooking lessons.

Children from Tender Hearts Arena, a centre that hosts recreational events for pupils with special needs, also take part in dance classes, sport or create art together.

Arti Khazanchi, co-founder of Tender Hearts Arena, said such inclusion benefits all the children.

“Children are children and when you give them something fun to do together, there won’t be any inhibition,” Ms Khazanchi said.

“When they are dancing and doing sports together they are all focusing on the game and not looking at whether one child has a challenge and the other does not.”

But Neena Raina, the other co-founder of the group, said Unified Champion Schools would only work if activities were held consistently.

“The awareness and the conversation has begun,” Ms Raina said. “We have to teach children on both sides. It can’t just be once a week and done for records.

“This will have a long-lasting impact and this has opened doors for so many.”

Mohamed Al Nuaimi, director of the education affairs office at the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s Court, said the programme would be introduced across public schools soon.

“The first 18 schools have already implemented the programme,” Mr Al Nuaimi said.

“This includes Al Falahyia School and Hamooda bin Ali Model School in Abu Dhabi, which have recently organised unified sports days.’

Each school will be paired with a centre for children with special needs.

Mr Al Nuaimi said schools could determine how they wished to introduce the programme and what activities it included.

“The overall vision is to achieve inclusion in schools and teachers can incorporate inclusion into lessons and raise awareness about inclusion,” he said.

Sheela Menon, principal at Ambassador School in Dubai, said she noticed a general shift towards greater inclusion at schools but this would be accelerated by the Special Olympics.

“The awareness is more and mainstream school are collaborating with social needs centres,” Ms Menon said.

Ambassador School won this year’s Global Education Supplies and Solutions Education Award for the best initiative in the inclusion category.

At the school, pupils play basketball and football, and take part in yoga and arts lessons with children from Tender Hearts Arena.

“When you have pupils helping each other and mentoring each other, the impact or bonding is much better and the teachers have witnessed beautiful bonds developing,” Ms Menon said.

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