I want to be a pride for my country,” says Sondos Mohamed Abdel Moneim, official spokesperson for Special Olympics Egypt athletes. Abdel Moneim, 18, is already a real pride and a symbol of great success. Born with intellectual disability (ID), she has broken down all barriers. Today, Abdel Moneim has finished her diploma in tourism and hotel management; she is an inspiring Egyptian and Arab swimming champion, she is fluent in Arabic and English and has mastered communication skills and is training at the Ministry of Education and Technical Training.
On the international arena, Abdel Moneim is representing Egypt in summits and conferences all around the world as the official spokesperson for hundreds of thousands of Egyptian athletes with ID, who are all as impressive as she is.
But we don’t get to learn about the proud achievements of people like Abdel Moneim, nor do most of us think about integrating and understanding them, something Special Olympics aim to change. Surveys conducted by the international Special Olympics Committee reveal that a lot of us have had either no contact at all or only superficial contact with persons with disabilities during our lifetime, ranging from 13 to 47 percent in different countries.
Sondos gives a speech at the opening event of Egypt’s Special Olympics National Games
Waiting for my interview at the office of Special Olympics in Cairo, a young man stepped in and sat by my side. Recognizing he has a certain ID, I was clueless what I should do. But the 28-year-old swimming champion initiated the conversation and led it brilliantly; I found myself telling him about my job and my family and in a few minutes, Mohamed Gaballah happily told me, “We are now friends.” For the first time I realized how ignorant I actually was and how urgent it is to raise public awareness about these forgotten and unfairly excluded members of our society.
Persons with disabilities are gradually granted a lot of their overdue rights and the public debate is gaining momentum every day. Nevertheless, too many people are still holding on to false perceptions and stereotypes that are standing in the way of adequately including these, not different, but “special” individuals.
Distorted assumptions and obsolete generalizations in most societies still set a significant barrier against the individual development of these persons, and consequently their chance in a normal life.
“Our children are like any other child, you should just give them the chance to achieve what they can… The society has to help them and the family has to understand their capacities and never treat them as if they were special,” says Rania Mahmoud, the mother of Mostafa Hossam, 22, a swimmer and equestrian who has just won a bronze medal at the National Special Olympics games held last December. “As a mother, I am trying to prove my son in the society; but up till now, there are still mentalities that hinder what we try to achieve.” Mostafa’s academic capacities are not very high, his mother says; however, in terms of speaking, socializing and playing sports, he is doing significantly well.
Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
What we don’t know about ID
The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines people with intellectual disabilities as “characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior.”
According to the World Health Organization, up to 3 percent—or almost 200 million people—have intellectual disabilities (ID) worldwide, cutting across races, ethnicities and social and economic backgrounds. While research has proven that 85 percent of them are only mildly impaired, which means that they can still learn practical life skills, blend in socially and function in ordinary life with minimal levels of support, many of us still automatically, and falsely, assume that any person with ID cannot engage in a conversation or participate in activities. In fact, only 1 to 2 percent have profound disability, which causes obvious physical and congenital abnormalities, while the others are either mildly or moderately impaired.
“When Sondos was younger, we would have to deal with a lot of situations and looks. Even her professors would first have a wrong impression, but once they sit with her, they would say she is even better than other students without ID,” says Abdel Moneim’s mother. “We were determined that she would succeed; we pressured her and she helped us, until reaching where she is now.”
Omar El Shenawy, 24-year-old Special Olympics Athlete, serves as Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, representing the Middle East and North Africa region. He travels around the world to spread a message of love, acceptance and dignity for all intellectual disabilities athletes. He is also a university student, a successful athlete and a leader. However, his mother says, Shenawy is still facing a lot of social challenges. “He was never invited to a birthday and he does not have friends to go out with. People have to know they are humans like us and they have feelings.”
It is time to start a long-term transformation in our attitude toward these special individuals who deserve respect and admiration. This can only be achieved by getting to know them, training them and training ourselves, which is in the core mission of Special Olympics International (SOI).
“Special Olympics is a style of life. They completely and absolutely turn the person’s life, whether in terms of health through their doctors, sports, or even socially through the conferences…especially that this is the only life our children can actually have,” Mahmoud tells Egypt Today. “It is a place that guides you to the right direction.”
“Mostafa loves sports…And since the equestrian federation does not recognize players with special needs, Special Olympics is the only chance for him to achieve his dream. He feels very happy and confident that he is doing something new. I myself was not expecting he would be able to control the horse and win championships and reach this level,” she says proudly.
Courtesy of SOE
A catalyst for change
Recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), SOI is considered the world’s largest sports organization that has prioritized children and adults with intellectual disabilities, seeking to overcome misconceptions. Using sports as a catalyst, SOI seeks to empower people with intellectual disabilities by enhancing their confidence and building up their personal skills. They also help create an all-inclusive society by spreading awareness about the “abilities” of persons with intellectual differences.
“SOI’s main target is social inclusion through sports…We chose sports because it is the best field that proves these people have the right to live like us and even better,” Ayman Abdel Wahab, Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa Regional President and Managing Director, tells Egypt Today. “Secondly, we want to change the public’s perspective about them from ‘oh! Nice’ to ‘important,’” he adds.
The initiative first started when American Eunice Kennedy Shriver recognized the special talents of her sister, living with intellectual disabilities, in the early 1960s; and she became aware of how much people like Rosemary have a lot to offer. The first International Special Olympics Games took place soon after, in 1968, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, gathering 1,000 athletes from 26 US states and Canada. Today, SOI has reached more than 5.7 million athletes from 172 countries.
“When people see them winning trophies, they are shocked. And this is what we want; to show them the ability, and not the disability,” Abdel Wahab says. “The cruelest thing is to tell me as a parent or brother [of a person with intellectual disability] ‘Oh poor you’…But the best thing in the world is to tell them, ‘Well done.’”
Special Olympics Middle East & North Africa is one of SOI’s seven regions, which comprises 22 Arab countries and Iran. The first regional games were held in 1999 in Egypt, witnessing the participation of 206 athletes and 89 coaches. The number of registered athletes in the region reached 20,433 in 2000. Today, it has increased by seven times, amounting to nearly 150,000.
Courtesy of SOE
The fact that Egypt hosted the first regional Special Olympics competition was not a coincidence or by chance. Egypt’s battle for the rights of persons with intellectual disability goes back over four decades, when the late Magda Moussa, also named Mother of Special Olympics, was the first principal to integrate special classes for students with cognitive disabilities in Egyptian schools. She initiated the Special Olympics program in the late 1980s, and was named national director of Special Olympics in 1994 and then president of the program in 1998.
In 1994, the program started organizing competitions between schools and organizations; participating in tournaments abroad, as well as hosting trainings for coaches and marathons. Egypt’s first national games were held in 1997 and the latest round took place last month, witnessing the participation of 2,000 athletes representing 11 governorates, and competing in 16 games.
Mohamed Desoki has been a Special Olympics Football coach for 17 years and is based in Menofeya. “We first started with around 10 schools [in Menofeya]; today we have 28 schools, organizations and clubs, after we had started spreading awareness about the importance of Special Olympics because it is not just limited to sports programs,” Desoki says, adding that they combat the marginalization of “this very important part of the society.”
Coach Mohamed Nasr, head of the special needs program in El-Shams Club in Cairo, first joined the program as a volunteer in Special Olympics in 1999, after taking Special Olympics’ coaches trainings in swimming and handball.“ The first training you need to know as a coach is that these players are normal; the only difference would be in repetitions. And at the end, the athlete would reach the same potential as anyone and learn the same skills…There is always an advancement, as long as there are trainings and the player pursues the programs,” Nasr says. “We had one player, Mostafa Galal, now 38, who has an intellectual disability and he was very afraid of the water. With training, he became a world champion and he was hosted twice at the White House.”
With social inclusion as a primary goal, Special Olympics welcome any person identified as having intellectual disabilities, with a minimum age requirement for competition of 8 years old. As for younger athletes, another sport and play program is dedicated to children with and without intellectual disabilities, aged 2 to 7 years old.
Offering high-quality trainings and competition in over 30 Olympic-style individual and team sports, SOI applies the power of sports to develop the athletes’ confidence, improve their health, teach them to dream and reach their goals, and help them uncover their strength and potential.
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” says the Special Olympics Athlete’s oath.
A decade after it was first founded, Special Olympics is still filling a big gap in Egypt, being the only chance for persons with disabilities to engage in certain sports, especially the not-so-popular ones. “Up till now, I cannot find neither a governmental nor a private place for Mostafa to train,” Mahmoud says. “I have to keep looking for a farm or someone who would rent me a place…I went to clubs and they simply refused to train him without even testing him and seeing if he actually had any problems. There are certain places that reject us for the sole reason that we have ID.”
Defying all challenges, Egyptian athletes are winning gold, silver and bronze medals in regional and world games year after year.
A wholesome approach
Unlike the Paralympics, which gather athletes with ranges of disabilities, and the international Olympic, Special Olympics is not merely a sports organizations. It rather works with and for persons with intellectual differences pursuing two goals; to directly empower them and enrich their skills and talents, and to get rid of social misunderstandings and underestimation of their capabilities and ensure their social inclusion.
“Through sports, we [seek to] change a whole community, create social inclusion and show people that these children are important and that when they are given a chance, there is some return on investment,” Abdel Wahab stresses.
“When the player comes back carrying a medal, he would walk proudly and people would feel his importance,” coach Desoki says. “When he feels his own importance, the surrounding society will start to feel there is some light that Special Olympics offers to these people. When we address them as heroes, people would take notice…This is the importance of social inclusion that we are seeking.”
SOI’s tailored health programs are also designed to help the athletes improve their health, fitness and wellbeing all year round, making it the largest global public health organization dedicated to serving people with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics Healthy Athletes® has in all conducted over 1.7 million free health examinations in more than 130 countries, according to SOI official website.
SOI further offers training and guidance to the coaches and physicians who deal with the athletes, and provides a support network for the families. “Family conferences offer awareness to the families, to know how to deal with their children and treat them as part of the family,” says Mostafa’s mother, who has also been volunteering in Special Olympics for years, as well as her other son. “The families have to understand the needs of their child and that they have personal capacities…Once you make them feel self confident, be sure that they will prove themselves.”
In an effort to promote social inclusion through sports, the Unified Sports Program brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team; they train together and play together. Around 1.4 million people worldwide are currently engaged in the program. “A handball team would include three players with ID and three players without ID…We try to explain to the players without intellectual disability that they have to match their level to the others and play together as one team,” Nasr explains.
According to the latest Unified Sports Research overview, 82 percent of family members of athletes in the United States reported that participating in Unified Sports improved their children’s self esteem. And 83 percent of the athletes themselves said that they ended up having more friends without ID after taking part in Unified Sports. “The Unified Sports Program is what accomplishes the goal of social inclusion,” Desoki says.
SOI’s confident and empowered athletes are also encouraged to take on bigger roles as mentors, coaches and officials, or even as public speakers and spokespersons. “It’s time to redefine our world and take our rights in our societies,” said Omar when he was first selected as International Global Messenger in 2015, according to Special Olympics official website.
“He speaks before kings and presidents, which boosts his self confidence; and it has changed his life,” says Mira Morsy, Omar’s mother.
Choose to include
As long as we are holding tight to our misunderstandings of special persons with intellectual disabilities, we will keep losing precious opportunities to get to know them, to see their talents, to listen to their ideas and thoughts; and we might also be missing out on a perfect and sincere friendship. From now on, I want to say hi to Mohamed when I see him in the street; I don’t want to freeze like I did. Mohamed and all of us need to acknowledge him as a powerful individual and an integral part in our society. He is not “different,” he is simply “special.”
At press time Mohamed had won one gold medal and two silver ones in the last national games.