The Special Olympics Movement


How the World Games can drive inclusivity in the Middle East

Mike Davis, Regional Director, CSM Middle East

I’m writing this off the back of Tiger Woods’ 5th Green Jacket, his first since 2005 and first major since 2008. For decades to come this will be remembered as the greatest of all sporting comebacks.    
I was recently debating with a group of friends who the greatest sportsperson of all time was. It went on for hours. A myriad of men and women covered from across the ages. Those that came closest to the top, we concluded, were the ones that had not only transcended their sport but shifted the needle on topics far more important than competition itself, inclusion being one of them. 
Here were find ourselves in 2019 and “inclusion” is as hot a topic as any, particularly across the Middle East.

We’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with the Special Olympics World Games which recently concluded in Abu Dhabi in March 2019. In the two decades I’ve been working in the industry, hand on heart, I can say it is the project that’s brought more joy than any other - a feeling shared by many others that I work alongside. Not only because of the incredible fortnight of activity that took place during Games time for the 7,500+ athletes that took part, but for what it stands for - addressing a significant issue in the region. The need for society to be more aware, understanding, accepting and inclusive towards People of Determination (the phrase used by the UAE for those that are differently able).  
Prior to the Games, a study commissioned by the Special Olympics stated that nearly a third of people from eight Middle East countries believe those with intellectual disabilities are not capable of being included in various aspects of society. (i) The research shows that people are sympathetic to people with intellectual disabilities but still doubt that they can be included in schools and in the healthcare sector among other areas. There is still hesitation to understand that people with intellectual disabilities can be proactive members of society.  

And that’s why one of the standout moments of the Games was at the opening ceremony when His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, stood to officially inaugurate the games and tell the athletes from around the world that the entire UAE is cheering them on. Whilst this statement was hugely powerful in itself, it was another moment that captured my heart.  At the beginning of His Highness’s speech a Special Olympian, unprompted, reached out to him and hugged him. Whilst this may not seem a big deal to many, it was significant, perhaps iconic. Not only did the normality and warmth of that embrace from both sides set the tone for the Games, but we know from research, that the leadership are the most influential role models in UAE society, and by demonstrating this sign of inclusivity the rest of the country will follow.  

On a more practical level, there have been a lot of changes in policy, with several federal policies in the process of being created or adapted to make the UAE much more inclusive. (ii) For example, 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 disabilities, whether physical or intellectual.
Being a parent of a child with Determination myself, I have seen first-hand the dramatic change that the UAE has gone through and whilst there is a long way to go, we are optimistic about the what the future holds.  
That’s clearly not where the inclusion debate ends. The region continues to struggle on topics concerning gender, race and religion. Sport has an important role to support in addressing these, and I believe positive change will happen with time. However, from what we’ve seen from the Special Olympics, when a nation gets behind a major issue, significant change can happen.  


(i) - The National, 'Special Olympics study finds a vital need to boost inclusion by improving education and work environments'
(ii) - Emirates News Agency, 'People of Determination Retreat milestone promoting culture of tolerance, acceptance: Ministers'