The United Arab Emirates, which is due to become the first Arab country to host the Special Olympics in 2019, is championing an alternative label for those with special needs: “People of Determination”.
Arab athletes used to being called “special needs” – or even derogatory terms like “retarded” in their home countries – were surprised and excited this week to see welcome signs with the new label at the 9th Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Games in Abu Dhabi.
The term, seen everywhere from disabled access boardwalks to the Abu Dhabi exhibition centre, is one the UAE hopes will catch on beyond its borders.
Matar Saeed al-Naimi, president of the health committee for the 2018 MENA competition, says the games also offer a venue to educate local society.
Groups of Emirati elementary school age children were a fixture at the MENA games, brought in with their teachers to attend various sports events.
“They are still young and they are the future, so it is very important for the UAE to teach this generation who are the ‘people of determination’ and what they are capable of doing,” Naimi said. “The goal is a united society.”
On Tuesday, the final day of competitions, a basketball match between Iraq and Syria ended with tears, cheers and finally a group photograph.
“I’m happy, very happy. I don’t know how to describe it,” said Naim Asmar, a member of the victorious Syrian basketball team.
Asked whether he preferred they be labelled as special needs or as people of determination, the athlete responded unequivocally.
“People of determination,” he said over and over. “It means we have willpower! We might even have more than regular people,” he said pointedly.
The team coach, Yasser al-Yassine, was also thrilled.
“This term is like a push for them – they understand what it means. It’s very motivating. It says: ‘I am a person of determination, so let’s go! I will do, I will train, I will play. If I can’t play, I’ll at least participate.
“It’s a wonderful concept,” said Yassine, whose team was participating in an international competition for the first time in six years.
‘No difference between us’
Syria’s team coach said his players – three from Damascus, three from Aleppo and two from Homs – face challenges in society even as the country’s war has wound down in their own cities.
The confidence they gain at regional competitions and local games is hard won – and easily lost.
“There’s society, the school, the neighbourhood – the streets. So maybe I have them once, twice or three times a week for an hour and a half. All the confidence we built in an hour and a half can be destroyed in five minutes,” said Yassine. “They need to have each other’s backs.”
While the men’s teams from Syria and Iraq shook hands, women’s teams from Pakistan and Algeria faced off on the opposite court.
Kamilia Nihad Metidji, a 26-year-old volunteer with the Algerian team, said the “people of determination” label had surprised her.
“I was very happy that they call them this because I find that – with this word – there is no difference between us and them, between the healthy and the handicap-,” she said, stopping short to correct the terminology.
“The people of determination,” she continued. “It gives them self-worth – it’s super. It means they don’t have to feel different.”
Metidji said she volunteered with the special needs athletes because she wanted them to “feel like there’s no difference between us”.
“I want to give them courage: to show them they can accomplish something. They can win games, they can win medals – they can do everything we do.”