It wasn’t just special, it was extraordinary

It wasn’t just special, it was extraordinary

Sports gave these athletes a platform to change minds and hearts. In return, they made sports better.

I was involved with Special Olympics Asia Pacific last year when we created this very website.

I always believed that the athletes needed a home for their stories and thus began my journey with a very special organisation.

Working with Special Olympics was very personal for me. My daughter, Natalie, has a rare condition called Aicardi. It makes her special.

When I was asked if I was interested to volunteer as a photographer to cover the athletes from the Asia Pacific region at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, the answer was a resounding yes.

At the opening ceremony of the Games, I had to hold back tears. I watched the athletes enjoying their time on the world stage, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether my daughter’s turn would ever come, to be able to experience the joy of sports.

I was there to contribute, but it turns out that I came home with very valuable lessons from a group of very special, no, extraordinary people.

In my line of work as a communications specialist, trying to change mindsets is something I do a lot. And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher during this trip. In fact, I had many teachers – more than 7,500 athletes from over 190 nations.  They taught me something that they had to do since they were born – changing the mindsets of people to be more inclusive.

Building an identity

We often underestimate just how much our identities are defined by how others view us. We brush them off as labels, but they matter though. And they matter even more, when we are trying to change mindsets.

The first thing that I noticed when I arrived at the Abu Dhabi International Airport was the lack of signs for the “handicapped” or “disabled”. It wasn’t because they didn’t care, but they cared enough to change how it was labeled. It was called “For people of determination”. I was floored. It was a simple but powerful change.

When Abu Dhabi was selected as the host for the World Games, they realized that the existing term they had to describe people with intellectual disability was derogatory. In fact, it is a problem we have in many languages.

More should follow the example of the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games. The campaign tagline says “Meet the Determined”. Three powerful words that ring true. These athletes are determined to prove to the world that they belong. That they are capable. That they are no different from any of us.

When we give them a positive identity, it changes how people see them and more importantly, how they see themselves.

Telling the stories

Storytelling is a very powerful tool. The World Games provided a platform for the athletes, and the community around them to share their stories.

I remember the story about an Afghan athlete who suffered abuse in school because teachers weren’t equipped to teach children with special needs. I remember an athlete from the Philippines who keeps a folder of superheroes to inspire himself. I remember a coach in Brunei who helped care for an athlete like his own child. And I will not forget the athlete from Pakistan who used to have an imaginary friend just so she can have a friend.

It wasn’t about winning medals. It was about sharing how they got to where they are today, where they were before and why it is crucial for us to change.

Stories stick with us. Statistics, key messages and buzzwords don’t.

Build a community

It takes a village to change mindsets. You can’t go at it alone. One of the things that I really loved at the World Games was the Unified events. These were events that had a mix of athletes – those with and without intellectual disabilities. I saw the importance of building a community and a team to create understanding and acceptance.

It is similar when implementing change. Find the people who will be able to support you but also those who will challenge you. There is nothing more dangerous than living in a bubble where you think everything is fine when it is not.

I went to Abu Dhabi looking to contribute what little skills I have in photography. I came back enriched, inspired and in awe of the athletes.

They share the same joy, frustration, and disappointment as us. They put in the same effort or maybe even more. There were many things that they do better. They include rather than exclude. They embrace rather than blame. They bring out the best in people, and not the worst.

Sports gave these athletes a platform to change minds and hearts. In return, they made sports better.

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1 thought on “It wasn’t just special, it was extraordinary”

  • This a very indpiring story from a person who went there as a photographer but learned and brought back what he saw from the world games that had made him to undetstand and inspired him about the games and this special kids….and i for myself because i have a downsyndome who is a athlete of special olympics she is a gold medalist of two world games Los Angeles and Dubai Abu Dhabi and his story inspired me because this is what should happen we travel with our kids not only for the games it also to see and learn about that hosting country plus from other countries that are participating..then when we return to our home country we share with our community and especially the family and parents of yjis special kids to make more different n open mindset.

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