ABU DHABI, 13th March, 2019 (WAM) — Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, which is being hosted in the Middle East and North Africa region for the first time, will change perceptions about people of determination, break down barriers and promote inclusion, said Loretta Claiborne is the Chief Inspiration Officer at the Special Olympics.
The UAE, which she said was “way ahead of the game for inclusion”, is a fitting host for the Games as it represents all of the ideals held dear by the Special Olympics movement, notably tolerance and compassion.
For her things could have turned out rather differently: as a girl with visual impairments and intellectual disabilities, who couldn’t walk or talk until she was four years old, the odds appeared to be stacked against her. Instead, Claiborne turned things around spectacularly, and continues to inspire millions worldwide by sharing her incredible story, as she did on Wednesday at a lecture hosted by the Majlis Mohamed bin Zayed.
During the course of her lecture, titled ”Changing the Game for Inclusion”, hosted at the Emirates Palace, Claiborne described how the Special Olympics movement has improved the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, demolished stereotypes and helped promote tolerance and inclusion. The lecture was attended by H.H. Sheikh Nahyan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation as well as other dignitaries.
Speaking just as the Special Olympic World Games – the year’s biggest global sporting event – gets under way in Abu Dhabi, Claiborne said her mission is to spread inclusion for people of intellectual disabilities beyond sports and into society as a whole. Claiborne, who said she absolutely loved the UAE’s term – “people of determination” – said she was confident that the 2019 World Games, which is being hosted in the Middle East and North Africa region for the first time, will change perceptions about people of determination, break down barriers and promote inclusion. The UAE, which she said was “way ahead of the game for inclusion”, is a fitting host for the Games as it represents all of the ideals held dear by the Special Olympics movement, notably tolerance and compassion.
Early in life, Claiborne personally experienced the pain and anguish that those with disability have to endure to get accepted in society. Being very poor, Claiborne’s mother could only afford to place her in a regular public school, where she was regularly teased and taunted for her disabilities by fellow students. When she was 12, Claiborne came perilously close to being placed in an ‘institution’ and her luck changed only when the school authorities, noticing her pent-up energy and fondness for running, recommended that she appear for the Special Olympics practices that were coming to her town. From that point onwards, she went from strength to strength, eventually taking part in the 1971 Special Olympics where she was thrilled to find that people were cheering for her and she was getting a moment in the spotlight.
Everything changed at once for Claiborne who appeared at another Special Olympics event some weeks later where the volunteers saw her as an athlete, not a person with disabilities. Her success on the playing field empowered her and gave her a sense of self-accomplishment. Over the next 20 years, Claiborne appeared in numerous Special Olympics in multiple sports including figure skating, golf, tennis, soccer and hockey, and ran 26 marathons, even finishing among the top 100 women at the Boston Marathon twice. She is also a fourth-degree black belt in karate.
Claiborne, whose inspiring story was immortalised in 2000 in the Walt Disney TV film production, The Loretta Claiborne Story, paid tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started the Special Olympics, saying she was a strong woman with a powerful idea who inspired an entire movement with the power of sport. She also credited Kennedy Shriver with changing her life with the advice: “Don’t tell me what you can’t do. Show me what you can do.”
Claiborne has become a champion for inclusion and has made it her life’s mission to ensure that no one with disability is left in the shadows or marginalised. Women are usually regarded as a minority, and those with intellectual disabilities often face double-discrimination and are excluded. But in the UAE, the country’s rulers have always hailed women as inspirers of generations and equal partners in the nation’s success and the UAE has shown what is possible once attitudes start to change. Fittingly, there are a record number of women athletes – nearly 40 per cent of the total competitors – taking part in the Abu Dhabi Games, which is set to be the most inclusive Special Olympics World Games till date.
Four female athletes, drawn from UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait, joined Claiborne on stage later to share their success stories. Each of them spoke about how the Special Olympics movement had helped them turn things around and how sport had changed their lives. As they described their own experiences, they reminded the audience as to why inclusion of female athletes through sport in the MENA region is so crucial to success. Incidentally, the Abu Dhabi Games will be hosting women athletes from Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Claiborne declared that the future is unified sports, so called because they are made up of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities playing team sports together, based on the evidence that those who “play unified” learn to embrace diversity, respect differences and become better at helping others. She went on to say that all of us can do our part to change the game for inclusion, adding that if everyone is more inclusive and begins to think and act more inclusively, attitudes are bound to change and fewer people will be left out on the margins.
The lecture was also attended by Timothy Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, a number of Sheikhs, ambassadors and VIPs as well as heads of participating delegations and athletes.