The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, was more than just a celebration of sporting achievement. It was an opportunity to alter perceptions and enact change. From an infrastructure perspective, the Special Olympics was the largest sporting event the UAE has ever hosted; from a mindset perspective, it was arguably the most important.

The journey began when hosting rights were awarded in November 2016 but for Tala Al Ramahi, chief strategy officer of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, the completion of the event did not represent the end of the road.

“There were so many amazing moments that happened during the games,” Al Ramahi tells Sport Industry Insider. “But one that really stands out for many people who attended the opening ceremony was His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan officially inaugurating the games and telling the athletes from around the world that the entire UAE is cheering you on.

“This was quite significant because one of the things we were trying to do with these games is change perceptions and address that stigma associated with people with intellectual disabilities. For His Highness to make such a statement and then to hear the applause from the stadium was really touching. I think we’ve been able to do just that with these games.”

With more than 7,000 athletes from 200 countries competing in the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, the event demonstrated that sport really can level the playing field for people with intellectual disabilities.

“There’s something unique about sport,” Al Ramahi says. “You don’t need a language to be able to play sport. When you’re on a court or a field, when you’re playing, everyone understands the rules, and you don’t have to say a single word to be able to communicate when you’re playing sports.

“There’s also this unifying power that, at least with Special Olympics, that you can achieve despite the challenges that you face or the intellectual disabilities you were born with or grow up with. To have that global stage to showcase to the world that you can achieve, it’s really powerful for a lot of our athletes and their families as well.”

Changing attitudes is one thing but genuine policy change has also sprung from the UAE hosting the Special Olympics. A number of new laws have entrenched the rights and opportunities afforded to ‘people of determination’.

“The change to describing those with disabilities as ‘people of determination’ was a major announcement shortly after the UAE’s Special Olympics bid was successful,” Al Ramahi explains. “This may have seemed to some like a small change but it is actually quite significant because the language really influences how we view the world and how we view people that we are addressing.

“There have also been a lot of changes in policy to make the UAE much more inclusive. I know that the Ministry of Community Development has spearheaded a lot of this through making sure that schools become much more inclusive in addition to announcing the implementation of the UAE code, which is the universal code of making sure all future infrastructure is accessible to people with all disabilities, whether it’s physical or intellectual.”

Education is key to any long-term plans for greater inclusion and the Special Olympics has certainly helped spark improvements at the school level, with the announcement during the games that the UAE’s Unified Champion Schools Program would be expanded from September 2019.

“We’ve been able to push for more inclusive schools through the Special Olympics umbrella,” Al Ramahi says. “This Unified Champion Schools Program promotes more inclusive schools through three key pillars. One is unified sports, essentially the premise of Special Olympics, plus unified leadership and school-wide engagement.

“Basically schools – even those that do not have students with intellectual disabilities – will commit to after-school programs that are much more inclusive and would be open to people with intellectual disabilities. In this way, we can promote this culture of inclusion among our youth and students in the UAE.”

Beyond that new schools policy, more major announcements are expected soon.

“Yes, there is more to come,” Al Ramahi reveals. “Before the Special Olympics opening ceremony there was a Determination Retreat, a gathering of members of cabinet ministers, and even royal family members who came together to talk about the issues facing people with intellectual disabilities.

“They wanted to come up with new programs and policies that would address some of these challenges. As an outcome of that, there will be a few more announcements in the coming weeks I’m sure.”

“With these games, the awareness has increased and hopefully there will be even more change to come.”

For some, the changes now happening in the UAE have been a long time coming, with the Middle East previously coming under scrutiny for its approach to people of determination. However, Al Ramahi believes the region is not alone in needing to do more.

“I admit that in our culture, we have needed to fight against the sense of shame that was traditionally associated with having someone with an intellectual disability in your family.

But while I used to think that we were a little behind the curve in the Middle East, I’ve come to find that, honestly, the stories of exclusion in communities are universal. They transcend borders; it is definitely not a unique problem to the region.

“Thankfully, we’ve been able to address many of these issues and some of our most touching moments were when family members came to us and said ‘we didn’t realise our children could achieve so much if we had just given them a platform’.

“There were many emotional moments like this. Social media was filled with beautiful instances where athletes celebrated with their families; every one of these athletes has an incredible story to tell. With these games, the awareness has increased and hopefully there will be even more change to come.”

The organisation of the Special Olympics was a monumental task for Al Ramahi and her team, with an army of volunteers helping to ease the logistical strain. Pleasingly the event was as successful operationally as it was philosophically.

“We were honestly blown away by the volunteers. Our target initially was to recruit 20,000 volunteers – a number that was previously unheard of. In the end we had 21,000 people giving up their time for the Special Olympics – the largest volunteer group to ever be assembled for an event in the UAE. Amazingly, 2,500 of those were international volunteers who paid for their own flight and expenses. It was just incredible.

It has been a tremendous success story for the UAE and the region. Once you see the power of Special Olympics in bringing people together and pushing that agenda of inclusion, you want to continue to show your support – that momentum is important to ensure that this movement continues.”