Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Rio has taught me that we need a more inclusive society for all abilities

Children with disabilities should be given opportunities to be included without having to fight for them

Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed at the Dubai Run, part of the Dubai Fitness Challenge. Courtesy faz3 / Snapchat
Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed at the Dubai Run, part of the Dubai Fitness Challenge. Courtesy faz3 / Snapchat

The past few weeks have been remarkable for athletes like myself and my son Rio. You might remember him from a video that went viral when Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, posted it to his Instagram account. He joined us on the Dubai Run and pushed Rio part of the 10-kilometre route in his specially adapted wheelchair. It was a unique, surreal experience; what made it extra special for us was that it was Rio’s 200th race. Nor was it the first time Sheikh Hamdan had met Rio. He always takes the time to come and say hello whenever he sees us racing together and three years ago, he shared a video of Rio and my daughter Tia, who was taking part in the X3 Junior Triathlon at Kite Beach in Dubai. It went on to get more than 1.8 million views.

For Rio to be able to be fully included in a race, where he can take part in his disability running chair, is incredibly important to him and people like him. Globally, great progress has been made towards inclusivity but there is still a long way to go.

Inclusion means the world to our family. Rio is 16 years old and has many different disabilities from a rare chromosome condition called 1q44 deletion denovo syndrome. It causes seizures, severe learning disabilities, motor skill disabilities and sensory integration dysfunction. As a family, we strive to make sure that Rio feels included as much as possible within his community and the world around him.

Rio inspired us to create a non-profit foundation called Team Angel Wolf to show communities how inclusion can work. In the 16 years he has been alive, we have witnessed a real progression in inclusion in our community and around the world. Because of him, we have discovered the importance of inclusion in terms of practicality, everyday survival, equitability and from a moral imperative.

We have made connections all around the world with families who have a child with disabilities and we have seen many situations where people are struggling to cope on a daily basis – struggles that most people would not be aware of

It is reassuring to know that voices are being heard here in the UAE. From the Special Olympics World Games held in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, to the nine days of intense action earlier this month at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai – where 43 new world records were set and 1,400 track and field athletes flocked from 122 countries – the country has set its sights on being the most disability-friendly city in the world. We hear of incredible initiatives and adaptations coming to the UAE and it gives us hope for the future.

It still feels there is a lack of fairness when it comes to the needs and rights of people with disabilities globally. In battles around the world for the rights and inclusion of people who are perceived to be different, there seems to be a lack of energy for the rights of people with disabilities and specifically for people with intellectual disabilities.

We have made connections all around the world with families who have a child with disabilities and we have seen many situations where people are struggling to cope on a daily basis – struggles that most people would not be aware of.

From having to fight for a place in a mainstream school to getting access to affordable medicine, therapies and healthcare, families across the world struggle every day for fairness and basic rights.

Many caregiving parents are utterly exhausted with no access to help, respite or support. It is a full-time job with no reprieve for the whole of your child’s life. Have you ever tried to change the nappy of a young adult, fitting both of you in a tiny cubicle in an aeroplane toilet? This makes travel impossible for many families after a certain age, which perpetuates isolation and exclusion.

These struggles do not describe a progressive, inclusive world. As parents of children with disabilities, we know some children need specialist support and services. We do not expect them to be able to participate in everything the world has to offer, but when and if they can be accommodated, opportunities should be provided without parents having to fight for them, which unfortunately is often the case.

There is now more awareness and kindness from society in general, which is wonderful, but sometimes we worry that some of it comes from a place of sympathy that is neither productive nor helpful. Empathy is needed more as this is where real change comes.

We try to make positive changes through Team Angel Wolf. The goal of the foundation is to spread awareness, inclusion and the integration of people with disabilities in the community while inspiring communities to embrace their own health and fitness. We aim to prove anything is possible.

Children are our hope for change in the world and to right the wrongs of previous generations to create a better, more inclusive future for everyone.

We are hopeful of greater progression towards inclusivity in the future. As individuals, we all must take personal responsibility to effect change rather than waiting for something to be made mandatory before we adapt our behaviour. Only then will we have a more inclusive, kinder society.

Nick Watson is the founder of Team Angel Wolf

Updated: November 26, 2019 11:03 AM

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