Fourteen-year-old Clivenne Vissary is vivaciously practising the breast stroke at Abu Dhabi’s Brighton College swimming pool. On the paver, her volunteer swim buddy Jessica Smith, a grade 11 student of Brighton, is cheering her on with animated hand gestures. There’s a reason hand gestures are being used. Clivenne, you see, is deaf. But with rigorous practise, she is determined to make her mark in the swimming competitions at the upcoming 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games (SOWSG) to be held in Abu Dhabi next week.

At the other end of the pool, 20-year-old Rebecca Holt, who has just emerged from the water, is having her hair dried lovingly by her mother Joanna. Rebecca has global development disorder, which is a delay in various areas of physical and mental abilities. But Joanna says the practice sessions for the games have made her daughter extremely focused and determined. ‘Though Rebecca has been swimming from a very young age, now she is keen to improve her performance. [The games] have given her a lot of motivation and improved her fitness levels,’ says Joanna.

By hosting the special Olympics for the first time in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, Abu Dhabi and the UAE have proven that accessibility and inclusion is a top priority for the government.

The coaches say the unified method has done wonders for all kids involved
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The country has been at the forefront of the protection and promotion of rights for people with intellectual disabilities for more than 20 years in the Middle East and is making huge strides in integrating people with intellectual disabilities into society.

Athletes will participate in 24 officially sanctioned Olympic-style sports, including athletics, swimming and football among others.

More than 7,500 athletes have already registered to participate in the games. More than 175 nations will be participating — the most number of nations to ever participate in a World Games in the 50-year history of Special Olympics.

‘Our goal is to host the most unified games ever and to provide all people of determination across the globe with the opportunities that Special Olympics offers. This will also be a stage to showcase their talents,’ says Tala Al Ramahi, chief strategy officer of SOWSG 2019.

‘We have seen that inclusion and integration of citizens and residents with special needs is a priority for the UAE leadership, backed by legislation and comprehensive support for people with disabilities of all types, and their families.

‘As for Special Olympics, there was firm backing from the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court as a key stakeholder in the bid. Having strong government support from the host nation for a World Games is critical to not only the success of the Games, but its legacy as well.’

The Special Olympics movement is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. A key initiative of Special Olympics is Unified Sports, which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. ‘It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. Over the last 20 months, we have hosted several Unified Sports events across the country and we look forward to holding several more ahead of the World Games,’ says Tala.

Conor Conway is looking forward to grabbing a medal
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The UAE female swim squad trains in the pool twice a week at Brighton College, under the guidance of some of their swim coaches and a group of senior pupils.

‘Eight pupils, three staff from the physical education/swim department and two parent volunteers are involved in supporting the athletes. We also provide a lifeguard to support the parent volunteers who train the girls.’

The planning started in June and swimming commenced in September. The impact has been huge on the pupils. ‘They have experienced helping others and building relationships with the girls in the last two months as well as developing an understanding of learning disabilities and inclusion,’ says Simon Corns, principal of Brighton.

Sarah Stole, swim coach at Brighton College says that this unified method has done wonders for participants. ‘I would credit the level of expertise and confidence attained by the students to team effort. All the parents, students volunteers, coaches and participants themselves have put a more than hundred per cent into the practice sessions,’ she says.

Robyn Hurn, a certified swim coach and volunteer for SOWSG, says that the approach has been mutually beneficial for all kids involved. ‘The students (of Brighton) have devised their own rapport to communicate, interact and help these kids. The athletes have improved so much and are really enjoying these joint training sessions.’

It was two years ago that the term ‘People of Determination’ was first used in place of ‘Special Needs’ as part of the National Strategy for Empowering People with Disabilities. It revolves around six pillars: health and rehabilitation, education, vocational rehabilitation and employment, mobility, social protection and family empowerment and public life.

These efforts of inclusion are most apparent through 27-year-old Clara Lehmkhul. She is the first person with Down’s Syndrome to be employed as a Zumba instructor in the country.

A certified B1 Zumba instructor, she teaches three classes a week at Fitness Express in the Blumont hotel. ‘My students say that I am an inspiration to them and that I motivate them,’ she says, thrilled to be a role model.

Clari (as she is affectionately known) will be taking on the tennis court at SOWSG. ‘My lessons are going really well. I train every day with Zayed Sport City academy under two coaches. I also do personal training with a friend twice a week to work on my fitness and strength for the games. I want to be as ready as I can be,’ she says.

In water sports, Conor Conway is hoping to make a mark. The 16-year-old, who has Down’s Syndrome, is the son of John Conway, the principal of Shaikh Zayed Private Academy for Boys (SZPAB) Abu Dhabi.

Joanna (standing second from left) and Maya and husband Sami (third and fourth from left) with Rebecca (sitting second from left) and Rea (third from left) with other team mates and parents
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A tenth grader at the same school, he is an avid swimmer at open water competitions and can already swim the 1,500m required in the Special Olympic Sea Swim with ease.

For the Conways, this is truly a great achievement. ‘Many people believe Down’s Syndrome is just an intellectual disability, but there are physical issues too,’ says John. ‘They have low muscle tone and coordination is more difficult. Response time is slower and anxiety in unfamiliar situations, such as open water, can be intimidating. For Conor to have overcome all of this is testimony to his will-power, maturity and determination.’

Currently in its 50th year, the Special Olympics is aiming to ultimately end discrimination for people with intellectual disabilities.

‘Within this region, we want the World Games to be used as a catalyst for long-term change and serve as a platform to increase understanding, tolerance and inclusion. ‘In order to spread this message, we are working on several initiatives alongside the actual planning of the Games to ensure we are meeting our objectives of creating long-term change,’ says Tala.

An example for this inclusion effort was the Walk Unified event in Abu Dhabi, held in partnership with the Ministry of Tolerance. It brought together people of all abilities and all backgrounds to walk side-by-side with each other in a display of unity.

‘Such events help break down barriers between people with and without intellectual disabilities,’ says Tala.

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According to John the focus of competition and the Special Olympics has really supported Conor’s independence and competency, as he has had to acknowledge certain routines in order to improve his swimming. ‘He has willingly taken on the increased training demands and seems very happy to have clear routines throughout each week.

‘Perhaps more importantly the friendships he has forged with other athletes who are participating in the Special Olympics and with other young adults with intellectual disabilities that join in the various training sessions are what he will always cherish.’

Lea Eickemeyer, 21, who has tetrasomy 15 genetic disorder (another developmental disorder), is also waiting to take to the waters. She has been fine-tuning the breast stroke and freestyle swimming during regular training sessions in the pool.

Her parents Sami and Maya say that Lea is a ‘very intelligent girl’, though she has trouble expressing herself. ‘Earlier, the Hiltonia gave us their pool to train her for free. She really improved her form from there. Now with the practice for Olympics too, she is a woman on a mission,’ says Maya.

Lea also has a job as a ticket collector at VOX cinemas at Nation Towers, three times a week. The responsibility has given her confidence and improved her personality vastly.

‘Kids like her have special abilities. They are very focused on the things they set their minds on. These aspects can be trained and such kids can be initiated to many jobs. The need of the hour is an organisation that provides ample training for people such as Lea. It should have special trainers from various fields, which could help them with their communication, interaction and personality traits,’ says Sami.

Lea is not the only one who has work-related responsibilities. Conor works at the British Club library once a week and aspires to be a writer, photographer or a professional sportsman. He has scored well in academics, even winning the school progress award in Grade 9.

However, there have been occasions when a person of determination has had to face issues.

Rebecca, who works in the laundry department of Marriott hotel, once had a guest tick her off for being a bit tardy. When she returned home, Rebecca was visibly upset but she assured her mum that she was OK since the guest did not know she was ‘special’.

‘I was really awed by the courage she displayed and her acceptance of her condition,’ says Joanne.

All the parents Friday spoke to felt there is a need for more advanced thinking about how a structured system of education can be made accessible to children of all abilities and needs. The main issues they face are lack of higher education schools and vocational training centres for their children, they say. Since each disability requires a set of specially trained practitioners, it is difficult to get specialised support for the improvement of such children.

Part of Tala’s role as CSO of the Games involves working on the community and legacy committee. Responsible for the Legacy Programme, the committee will ensure that they create long-term change in the UAE and beyond. ‘A key objective of one of our legacy initiatives understands current governance framework for intellectual disabilities and exploring the best proactive alternatives and solutions. We hope to drive change in countries across the Middle East by demonstrating the value of social inclusion and providing a winning model led by the UAE,’ she says.

The Legacy Programme will also include the first real comprehensive survey of people with intellectual disabilities. A perceptions survey is in the making with three main elements: a qualitative piece analysing the needs and expectations of people with intellectual disabilities, a quantitative community perceptions survey aimed at community attitudes and perceptions of those with intellectual disabilities, and a qualitative stakeholders survey that looks at current policy influencers.

Creating change through education will play a big role in the Legacy Programme. The committee is currently working with education organisations to incorporate content on disabilities, inclusion and Special Olympics into school curriculum.

‘We hope to eventually incorporate the values of Special Olympics into the school curriculum of every single public and private school in the country. We also hope to launch after-school inclusive programs for the community through Community Schools in Abu Dhabi and soon across the UAE,’ says Tala.

Meanwhile, with barely a few days to go for the Olympics, football legends Romario, Cafu and Didier Drogba are just a few of the celebrities who are scheduled to attend the Games. Michelle Kwan, Dikembe Mutombo, Vladimir Grbic, and Apolo Ohno are among the Special Olympics Global Ambassadors planning to be in the UAE for the event.