In less than two weeks, Abu Dhabi will host tens of thousands of people attending the Special Olympics World Games – and who better to welcome them than volunteers with disabilities?
More than 250 of the 20,000 volunteers registered to help guide guests and organise cultural programmes across the capital's venues are people with intellectual and physical disabilities.
It is hoped their participation in the running of the Games will promote inclusivity and show that people with disabilities can be valuable employees if they are given the chance.
The opportunity to be part of the largest humanitarian sporting event in the region has given the volunteers hope that change is possible.
“I have always dreamt of change since I was small and it is no longer a dream,” said Noura Abdul Aziz, an Emirati social media content producer at Abu Dhabi Media. “We are living it. It is a reality. Change can take small steps but it is happening.
"I also want to make sure that after the Special Olympics, we as a group of people of determination continue to prosper. I don't want it to stop. I hope this will be a driver to keep the change happening."
Ms Aziz, 28, has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP, a rare neurological condition that causes muscle weakness and pain.
Ms Aziz heads a team of 10 people with disabilities who will welcome visitors beginning March 14.
“I tell them to celebrate their difference and make it their anthem. I tell them, ‘Don’t be ashamed of being different and talk about it, if anybody asks.’ If people start to see us as confident, that is when they will be attracted to speak to us,” she said.
During a training session at Abu Dhabi Media, more than 50 people with special needs took part in role-play exercises, handing out badges and sweets to visitors and other volunteers.
Checklists taped to the wall reminded them to bring fully charged phones, wear a watch, be mindful of hygiene and jot down the time and date of their shifts for the Games.
Abdulla Al Fahim, an Emirati volunteer who works in the administrative section of an investment company, suffers from Joubert syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the area of the brain that controls balance and co-ordination.
He hopes that volunteers will feel empowered to speak to visitors about their disabilities, which he says will help reduce stigma.
“I feel people should not be silent. I’m OK to tell people about my condition. I tell them that it affects my balance,” said Mr Al Fahim, 31. “I’m excited to say ‘hello’ to people. This is my country and I’m proud to be part of the World Games.”
The programme is run by Sedra Foundation, which has been working with volunteers with special needs every month since October last year in preparation for the Games.
The research centre works to promote inclusion in schools and the workplace.
Experts said they hoped the skills the volunteers learnt will open up opportunities for people with special needs beyond the Games. Certain volunteers have been trained to assist medical teams while they conduct health assessments on athletes, while others will act as guides to direct visitor to different venues.
Some were part of the Special Olympics regional Mena Games in March last year and have been part of community events such as a health and fitness festival in Al Ain and an opportunity fair at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“Some people said they had never seen people of determination helping out before. We are super proud to have them participate,” said Renate Baur-Richter, programme manager at Sedra.
"Earlier, people were a little apprehensive when they met young adults of determination. But now we see people approaching our team with more interest. They ask what we do, what they can do to support us. This is what is needed for people of determination to be seen and to know they are included in our community."
Scottish resident Linda Gillam said being part of the Special Olympics was important for her son Richard, 38, who has Down syndrome and is hearing-impaired.
“You feel the whole country is behind the Special Olympics and there is this big push forward. Things are moving in the direction of including everyone and you can see it with the work being done with the volunteers,” she said.
Ms Gillam said that in the five years since she and her family moved to the UAE from Bahrain, she had seen a big shift in the acceptance of people with disabilities.
“Perceptions are definitely changing. Before, it was difficult to take out someone who had any kind of disability.
“But now, everyone everywhere is welcoming. It’s really much better now.”