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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Special Olympics will generate goodwill and engineer a further shift in attitudes

Late-afternoon weekend walks are a source of inspiration for our columnist

To promote the Special Olympics MENA games in March and promote the inclusivity, a event named Walk Unified is being held between 3-6pm every Friday in Umm Al Emarat Park. Courtesy: Special Olympics
To promote the Special Olympics MENA games in March and promote the inclusivity, a event named Walk Unified is being held between 3-6pm every Friday in Umm Al Emarat Park. Courtesy: Special Olympics

What’s that you say? Your New Year’s resolution to be more fit has withered on the vine and your new trainers have become your cat’s favourite napping spot? Has your spine taken on the shape of your car’s seat? Or perhaps you’ve just moved to town and you’re wondering how you’re ever going to make sense of this chaotic city, where it’s possible to go to the shawarma shop and hear five or six languages being spoken, none of which are your own.

I have a suggestion: dust off those trainers, put down your shawarma, and come to Umm Al Emarat Park on Friday afternoons for a walk.

Not just any walk: these late-afternoon walks, which are being held every Friday, are part of the build up to the Special Olympics’ Regional Games, which are being held here next month. I didn’t know that these walks were being held every Friday, until a work colleague suggested that a group of us go together. I’m guessing I’ll be doing more sauntering and chatting than speed-walking, but even a slow walk is better than staying hunched over my laptop and wondering why my shoulders are so stiff.

The Special Olympics, which is now an international event, started humbly: as a summer camp organized in 1957 by Eunice Shriver, sister to John F and Robert Kennedy. She wanted people with intellectual disabilities to have the opportunity to participate in athletic activities, which were often denied to them because they were “disabled” – and thus deemed to be incapable and inadequate. The Special Olympics has grown to become a year-round endeavour that provides training and support to more than five million athletes in more than one hundred countries, and has helped change public opinion about “the disabled”, challenging the world to see these people as individuals rather than as types.

The fact that the regional games, to be followed in 2019 by the Special Olympics World Games, are being held in the UAE, represents a significant step forward for our community, if you’ll excuse the pun. Not only will the games generate global goodwill but they will also demonstrate a profound shift in the way the country views disability, from something to be hidden away to something to be regarded with dignity and acceptance.

When I was growing up – in what my children like to call the Dark Ages – it was considered perfectly reasonable to call a person with Down syndrome all sorts of ugly names that only served to create and perpetuate barriers. Eunice Shriver’s backyard camps took place well before I was born, but it wasn’t until I was in college that those words flipped around to stigmatise those who used them as small-minded and divisive. One of the contributors to that change was the Special Olympics, which became a platform for stories of determination and athletic excellence.

The trajectory of the Special Olympics illustrates to me one way in which positive social change can happen: through the patient efforts of people who refuse to accept the status quo, and who insist that social conventions are not sufficient reason to maintain unjust practices. This change may not have been dramatic; it’s been a slow revolution rather than an overnight barn-burning. But slow change can sometimes create a more permanent shift, with roots that go deep. Who among us now would say that someone with Down syndrome shouldn’t play basketball, or that a person with cerebral palsy shouldn’t take a literature class? The “should nots” have been removed, replaced with “why not”?

True, walking around Umm Al Emarat Park on Friday will not qualify you as an Olympic-level athlete; in fact, you might not even work up a sweat. You will, however, demonstrate your support of the Special Olympics if you lace up those trainers and come walking with us on Friday.

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