Intellectually impaired athletes at MENA Games : Sports transforms lives | Sunday Observer

Intellectually impaired athletes at MENA Games : Sports transforms lives

Winners at the MENA Games
Winners at the MENA Games

Committed, diligent, persevering they trained for months. Though the obstacles standing in their way were countless – so was the strength they received overcoming them. They had none but their parents and loved ones around – to strengthen, support and care. Yet, their indomitable will sustained and made them winners.

The Special Olympics Serendib (Sri Lanka) team of athletes brought home gold and bronze medals along with other international accolades, competing with 32 other countries at the 9th MENA Games held at Abu Dhabi recently. Sri Lanka was a special invitee at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Special Olympics Regional Games held from March 14 to 23.

Special Olympics is a global organization which serves 4.9 million people with intellectual disabilities in 172 countries.

Their mission is to provide people with intellectual disabilities, “the chance to play, the chance to compete and the chance to grow.” Its founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, believed, “if they were given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else, they could accomplish far more than anyone ever thought possible.”

Having a sister with intellectual disability propelled Shriver to become a pioneer activist in recognizing their rights, in the 1950s. Her strong voice against ostracizing intellectually disabled persons helped to bring in reforms in USA creating an environment for more inclusive practices.

It is the attitude of society that debilitates children with intellectual disabilities, opines the Chairperson of Special Olympics Serendib, Dr. Nimal Ayiththa Kariyawasam. “People don’t recognize their abilities.” Though they can’t reach higher levels of education, “they can be trained and can perform many tasks much better than those regarded ‘normal’.

The lives of some athletes have been transformed amazingly through involvement in sports,” he explains. In keeping with the aims of the international organization, Special Olympics Serendib strives to empower people with intellectual disabilities to lead successful lives in an inclusive society. They provide training, competitions and healthcare for the athletes.

Sometimes, these services are extended to their families as well. Furthermore, they reach out to families and communities to create a more conducive environment.

Eyes, Ear Nose & Throat (ENT) care, dental care, special foot care, general physical fitness check-up and mental health check-up are some of the health services offered by Special Olympics Serendib.

They also offer occupational therapy for the intellectually disabled. It is estimated that in Sri Lanka there are about 700,000 persons with intellectual impairment. Most of them have no access to basic healthcare and/or occupational training.

Special Olympics Serendib offers 12 different kinds of sports activities, including, swimming, volleyball, basketball, floorball, cricket and bocce. The organization collaborates with government and non-governmental entities to secure voluntary coaching for the athletes, says Kariyawasam. It is not everyone’s cup of tea.

One requires patience and calmness as well as an understanding and kind disposal towards the athletes, he elaborates. “Once we recruit a coach, we train them abroad to enable them to support intellectually disabled people. We have a few pockets where training is conducted. We don’t have designated places for Special Olympics Serendib.”

According to Kariyawasam, becoming an athlete at national level is not easy. Only winners at the provincial level are selected to the national team. Competitions are held at district and provincial levels. Furthermore, winning against another is also a difficult task, explains Kariyawasam. With their decision making skills impaired, the athletes sometimes do not recognize which team they play for.

To eliminate this error regular athletes in the form of ‘unified partners’ are introduced. They help keep the game in the right track, he clarifies.

Special Olympic World Games are held every 2 years. The next world games are scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi, UAE from March 14 to 21 2019. Usually, the host country bears all expenses except the tickets, says Kariyawasam.

Taking a team of athletes abroad is no easy task according to Kariyawasam.

For every four athletes, one coach and a staff member have to be present. So far, Special Olympics Serendib, an organization with no funding has managed to cover all expenses through the benevolence of the public, the support of the athletes’ families and the volunteers’ own money.

Pix: Thilak Perera and Serendib