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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Quest to develop athletes for Special Olympics through inter-school sports  

Special needs centre partners with mainstream school to train students, identify sporting talent

A student from Tender Hearts shoots the ball. Victor Besa for The National
A student from Tender Hearts shoots the ball. Victor Besa for The National

Nurturing a love of sport among children with disabilities ahead of the Special Olympics is the aim of a partnership between a special needs centre and mainstream schools across Dubai.

Teachers at Tender Hearts Arena say playing sports and learning alongside students will stimulate and motivate children with special needs.

They said results will not be immediate but are keen to find Emirati students and those of other nationalities to represent their country in future competitions.

“The whole objective is to train these students for the Special Olympics and for interschool competitions. We hope to find a strong sports person through the programme,” said Arti Khazanchi, co-founder of a recreational centre that opened two years ago in Umm Sequeim for children and young adults.

Some 30 students with developmental disabilities including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and Down Syndrome between the ages of even to 25 are regulars at the centre where they learn martial arts, piano, yoga and cooking.

Some study in mainstream institutions and sign up at the centre for music, art and theatre after school. They represent a wide variety of nationalities from across the globe.

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The centre has partnered with the Ambassador School in Dubai’s Mankhool area and plan to expand the project to other schools in the emirate.

“This is our launch pad. It will depend on their ability whether they get selected for track and field or basketball or swimming. Sport is the common ground if you want to have inclusion and the programme we have started will also focus on sport,” Ms Khazanchi said.

“Through sport and music everyone can come on one platform, it is the best way to bring people together. We plan to train them slowly. We know it will take time for this to grow. We have a long way to go and it will not be easy,” she said.

Pupils from Ambassador have been volunteering at the centre for a year but the new programme opens up the mainstream school campus to students with disabilities for extracurricular activities.

Children from Tender Hearts have been paired with Ambassador students in the hope that strong bonds will be forged as they are viewed as friends instead of coaches and teachers.

Educators believe that while there has been some integration of children with special needs in schools, participation in joint after-hours activities is not widespread.

“These students will be able to learn on a bigger campus with our coaches, sports facilities and open grounds. Their aim is to involve more students in sports and we have students who are passionate about helping them. We will work together towards skill development for the Special Olympics,” said Sheela Menon, principal of Ambassador School.

“It also makes our students more sensitive and compassionate and able to see the world of a determined child. Many have never understood their challenges. Our target is to involve more students and get more centres with special needs to come to our school. This will help towards the goal of Dubai becoming a disability friendly city by 2020.”

While the overall focus is inclusion and integration, the aim and long-term plan is to pinpoint the sporting talents of students.

Training in sports will also help with employment in the future, said Tender Hearts co-founder Neena Raina.

“They could be assistants to a fitness coach and can help the main instructor. Training in athletics and swimming will be excellent for children who are hyperactive or have ADHD because they can put all that energy into running and into sport,” Ms Raina said.

The Special Olympics World Games will be held in Abu Dhabi in 2019 in which athletes with intellectual disabilities will compete in 24 sports including athletics, basketball, swimming and football.

As the first city in the Middle East to host the event, it aims to change perceptions and address the stigma linked to people with developmental disabilities in the region when people watch 7,000 athletes from 170 countries compete.

A beginning will be made in March this year when some 1,500 athletes from the region will participate in the Mena games.