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Ayith Al Ahbabi practises at the Al Ain Club for the Disabled.
Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National
Ayith Al Ahbabi practises at the Al Ain Club for the Disabled.

Disabled young men find hope at sports club

To escape from the real world and feel able-bodied again, young men with special needs are gaining renewed confidence at a sports club.

Al Ain //When Ayith Al Ahbabi needs to withdraw money from an ATM, he must ask a friend, or sometimes even a stranger.

Mr Al Ahbabi has not been able to move his legs since 1993 when he was in a car crash while racing. Eighteen years later, life is still tough, with the everyday movement he previously took for granted near to impossible.

"Even withdrawing money from ATM machines is difficult," he said. "The machines are too high, and we cannot see the screen, in other places there are wheelchair-friendly ones, but in Al Ain there is none at the malls or public places we go to. As if they assume we do not go to malls now that we are disabled.

"It has always been a huge problem for me as long as I can remember. Now I ask friends or my siblings, or even people at the ATM machine to withdraw money for me."

But to "escape from the real world" and to feel able-bodied again, the 34-year-old Emirati has turned to the Al Ain Club for the Disabled, part of the Zayed Higher Organisation.

The club has become his second home, where he can be found almost every day. He is now the region's No 1 wheelchair racer and ranked 8th in the world.

"Since I started I feel like I belong to society and have better health," he said. "The car accident still has psychological affects on me, but sometimes I'm OK. The driver died from severe injuries, me and my friend were in the back seat and suffered from spinal cord injuries. We are both in the club."

That friend, Abdul Al Iryani, said the majority of club members were also injured in car crashes.

The club has approximately 200 members and is free for anyone to join. Along with laid-back gatherings, trainers are on hand to provide a tailored programme for each member to meet their needs.

Another fellow friend at the club is Saif Al Naemi, 32.

He was injured in a motorbike accident in 2001.

"I was studying for my bachelor's in the US in electrical engineering, and I was on a motorbike one day and I hit a wall," he said.

"I got a spinal cord injury and have been disabled since."

After returning to the UAE, he joined the club in 2007.

"Now I have something to do in my life," he said. "The club has had a positive effect on my life. I was crazy, now I am sane, it helped me to go easy on life. I don't feel disabled anymore."

He too is one of the club's champions in basketball after winning a silver medal at the last Asian Championships.

"I come here and I have fun, it's more social than sports," he said. "It makes life easier."

Although thrilled with his athletes, Tarek Souei, the manager of the club, wishes that life could be easier for the members when they head out its doors.

"There isn't enough help for them," he said. "Wheelchair-users are unable to bring their chairs beside their car doors as they come out, resulting in them parking far from entrances as they search for two free parking spaces to park in.

"The blind cannot move around without help in Al Ain, which means many blind children, as well as adults, depend on others more than they need to."

The deaf and mutes, who are many according to Mr Souei, are unable to communicate with health professionals in hospitals in Al Ain because they do not know sign language.

"Even when they go to Friday prayers, they don't know what is said in the lecture, there is no one to translate for them," Mr Souei said. "And they cannot go to court if they need to because there is no one to understand them."Despite the outside barriers, the club continues to give the athletes hope.

"They are family to me here," Mr Al Ahbabi said. And, meanwhile, as they wait for Al Ain to be a more disabled-friendly, he said he will continue to use the club.

"We are now practising for the Ramadan Championships, organised by the police," he said.




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