A class act
Schools in Abu Dhabi are really getting behind the Special Olympics
When we think of the Special Olympics World Games, we think of a movement. It’s one that guides us towards an integrated society, fosters friendship and empowerment, and educates communities.
Part of that movement starts in schools to help young minds become the torchbearers of inclusion for the next generation.
“Kids are the future generation, and schools are where they spend a lot of time together,” notes Seth Amoafo, manager of Community Engagement for the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. “Hosting Special Olympics here is giving young people the chance to change their mindset and that of their parents - it allows everyone to see that bigger picture.”
From sports events to students championing for change, here are three schools in Abu Dhabi who are sowing the seeds of inclusion in the classroom, proving that age is no barrier to making positive change.
Kicking off a movement
At Brighton College Abu Dhabi, the drive for inclusion all started with a Unified Football match. Organized to raise awareness of the school’s adoptive nation, Sri Lanka, as part of the Adopt A Nation program during the MENA Games, the event galvanized the school’s older students to make inclusion happen at school.
“Seeing the senior kids taking ownership of these projects and raising awareness of inclusion in school has been amazing to see,” smiles Matthew Deegan, Deputy Head of co-curricular. “As a result of our involvement in the Adopt A Nation program last year, a lot of our initiatives this year in school have been driven by them after they set up their own student committee.”
Just one example of how deeply rooted inclusion has become at Brighton College Abu Dhabi comes from student Laura Hurn, who volunteered to help coach five female UAE Special Olympians in swimming.
“At first, I think we were all were nervous going into it, but as we got to know each other we developed a relationship,” Laura says. “Inclusion in society is so important, because some of the athletes we’re training have amazing abilities, but we never see them - so bringing them more into the community with the Special Olympics has been amazing to bridge that bond.”
Giving a little time costs nothing, and that’s exactly what students and staff at Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Girls embodied when they stepped up to volunteer at Cycle Unified events running at Yas Marina Circuit.
“We wanted to be a part of a Unified event to help raise awareness and promote inclusion at our school,” says Melissa Hartsfield, Assistant Head of elementary at the school. “Students and staff handed out bicycles, t-shirts and helmets. They interacted with people of determination by riding bikes, or walking, around Yas Marina Circuit, as well as having conversations with them throughout the event.”
The school is welcoming the country of Liberia as part of the Adopt A Nation outreach program, as well as electing student ambassadors Unified Champions to pass on an inclusive message throughout the school.
Thanks to the work of students and staff, the message is already hitting home.
“We learned that we should include everyone no matter what, so they don’t feel bad about themselves,” says ten-year-old Unified Champion Aya Eltayeb. “We also saw a video about one of the competitors in Special Olympics, and how everyone was mean to her and how her life was, but she didn’t give up and teamed up with Special Olympics to support and guide her. We learned from her to never give up.”
The motivation to become Unified at Al Raha International School was inspired by creating a connection to the wider community, and helping students understand where they - and children with intellectual disabilities - fit in.
“Students need to develop a sense of belonging, and getting involved in such programs prepares them better for life in the community as children,” says Andrea McKinnon, the school’s Athletics Director. “With the Special Olympics in the near future, it is a good time to have our students start talking about athletes with intellectual difficulties to help remove any barriers that people with intellectual disabilities face.”
Cementing their commitment to inclusion, Al Raha International School’s students will be adopting the Central African Republic as part of the Adopt A Nation program during the Special Olympics World Games this year, and they look forward to continuing the conversation with their Unified Champion ambassadors.
For student ambassador Hannah Shreiber, aged 16, being a Unified Champion means helping people understand that people with intellectual disabilities are just as capable as those without:
“I want to promote the Special Olympics and be an ambassador for my school because it is important for people to see that disabilities don't stop you from doing normal things.”