A group of Emiratis and UAE residents with intellectual disabilities bopped to the music, swayed to peppy tunes and kept time to the rhythm at the opening ceremony of the IX MENA Special Olympic games on Sunday.
The young adults with disabilities held centre stage during an eight-minute musical piece to reflect inclusion as part of a troupe of professional dancers.
It took five days of intensive preparation, six hours of daily practice, commuting between Abu Dhabi and Dhabi for rehearsals and a lot of spunk for the group to get ready for their debut on a mega platform in front of thousands.
“I’m in a wheelchair so I never imagined I would ever be part of a dance performance and on a stage," said Emirati Ahmed Al Qubaisi.
“I realise I was a bit crazy to say I would be interested to perform. I usually stick out because of my wheelchair but in this I feel part of a team.”
Another young adult with developmental disabilities said the team spirit from being part of a unit carried them through.
“It has been exhausting for me because it was really long practice. But I don’t feel my disability any more. I feel like part of a team. If one of us dropped out, then the performance would be different. I can’t let my team down so that keeps me moving,” the UAE resident said.
Big screens captured the dance that featured a circle of inclusion and kicked off with young Emiratis waiting for their friends to arrive at the airport.
When the visitors trailing suitcases arrive, they greet their Emirati friends with high-fives, pose for selfies and participate in a medley of dances using props such as over-sized colourful gym balls.
“It’s an eye-opening moment because people may think that people with intellectual disabilities will just come on stage and wave a bit to the crowd. But for this, they really had to put in a lot of work, it’s professional and they perform great. It’s also an opportunity through this project for them to extend their social network. It’s not just about being on stage but shows their ability to participate and that is such a powerful thing,” said Renate Baur-Richter, programme manager at Sedra Foundation in Abu Dhabi.
“The idea was a beautiful concept to convey the story that Abu Dhabi and the UAE wants to welcome people with disabilities from all over the world. It’s really to convey through the performance that they are unified in a passion for sports and a more inclusive future for all.”
Eight volunteers from the centre trained with a professional troupe of dancers for the piece. The research centre Sedra seeks integration of people with disabilities in schools and at work.
“It proves that students with intellectual disability can work for six hours a day, be part of a full day of training and a long drive between the emirates. We just have to adapt to their way of learning. If you structure the training, everyone can participate and shine,” she said.
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The training also marked a milestone from some families since it helped them understand that their children were capable of working on their own in a new environment.
Interacting with people they did not know has made some families open to vocational training and internship opportunities for the young adults once the games are over.
“The dancers adapted the training to the capability of each student and it was lovely to see them work with highly trained professionals in a unified performance. The idea is that everyone can contribute. They have never worked together so we saw the power of team building,” Ms Baur-Richter said.
The team had to take into account that the opening ceremony with bright lights, loud music, flash photography from thousands of cameras and mobile phones would be an intimidating environment.
“There is so much of sensory over-stimulation on stage that can make it stressful so we were careful because there are so many influences they have to deal with,” she said about readying for the event.