The Special Olympics World Games will challenge misconceptions

Their legacy will improve the lives of people with disabilities in the UAE and far beyond

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - March 14, 2019: A fireworks display marks the end of the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, at Zayed Sports City.
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Fireworks filled the sky above Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sport City stadium last night at the climax of a spectacular opening ceremony, heralding the start of the Special Olympics World Games. These are the first Games to be held in the Middle East, and no event will do more to challenge misconceptions, overcome prejudice and promote inclusion than this. Who could fail to be moved by the sight of thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities from more than 190 nations, watching on proudly as the Flame of Hope lit the cauldron, marking the start of this global humanitarian and sporting event? As tens of thousands of spectators looked on enthralled, an anthem for the ages boomed out across the stadium. Designed in collaboration with people who live with intellectual disabilities, the opening ceremony reflected the inclusion and openness that the Games so powerfully represent.

While attitudes are rightly changing, many societies still have significant room for improvement

Today, such a spectacle is sorely needed. A major study carried out by the Special Olympics in eight Middle Eastern countries found that while compassion for those with intellectual disabilities was evident, plenty of work still needs to be done. The Regional Perceptions and Determined Aspirations survey revealed that discomfort often prevents many people from interacting with those with intellectual disabilities. But as Wemmy de Maaker, director of Mawaheb, an art studio for those with special needs, told The National, "if we are not integrating them socially then we are still excluding them". It is no surprise that it is the UAE that is holding the first Middle Eastern Games, or that awareness of government disabilities initiatives is higher in this country than anywhere else in the region, according to the survey. The UAE is built on the principles of tolerance and inclusion and the hosting of the Special Olympics World Games puts those principles into practice.

These Games are even more inclusive than normal. Organisers have called on the public to compete alongside disabled athletes in sports such as football, volleyball and basketball. And, in a first for the Games, a dedicated team has been set up to create a lasting legacy. An impressive 31 programmes, covering health, education, culture and spreading awareness, will improve the lives of those with disabilities in the UAE and challenge misconceptions and stereotypes. For many of the world’s 200 million people with intellectual disabilities, the Special Olympics are a source of inspiration. And while attitudes are rightly changing, many societies still have significant room for improvement. Fortunately, when the Games conclude in a week’s time, many people will have been enlightened.