Home to over 200 different nationalities, the UAE prides itself on being an inclusive country where everyone feels welcome.
In recent years, particularly since the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, there has also been a noticeable increase in support for people of determination, including more sports clubs, educational programs, and more opportunities to join gyms and fitness classes too.
For instance, the non-profit organization Heroes of Hope runs over 20 fitness classes a week exclusively for adults and children with special needs. This includes yoga, indoor cycling, Bollywood dancing, CrossFit and functional fitness.
Based in Dubai, the daily sessions are led by 50 specialist volunteer coaches, while the spaces are donated by a number of local partner gyms, such as GymNation, Sands Fitness, InnerFight and Ballers Fitness Center.
Founded by former teacher Hollie Murphy and Abdullah Alblooshi, co-founder of Desert Shield Fitness in Abu Dhabi, the charity will soon open its first dedicated gym in Mina Port, Abu Dhabi.
Around 150 people attend the classes, ranging in ages from four and 42. Murphy tells me that she has been working with some of the athletes and their families for years.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that the sessions have transformed the lives of every participant,” she says. “It can get very emotional. Some of the kids don’t go to school, so we are their everything. For some, even simple things like walking and picking things up is hard. But these classes are a fun way of getting stronger and improving coordination and movement.
“Some start not being able to climb or jump, but now they can jump and climb over everything. One boy with cerebral palsy has no ability in his right side but he absolutely loves boxing with his left. Others are running 10km races and some are competing in the Special Olympic World Games in Berlin this summer.”
The idea for Heroes of Hope first began when Murphy started an afterschool sports club for children with special needs. Within three years, it grew from 12 students to more than 100.
Her efforts were then picked up by the UAE government’s Ma’an social development initiative, and in 2019 she decided to quit her job and turn her passion into her full-time vocation.
“The sessions are fun and un-clinical. We treat everyone as athletes, celebrate their successes no matter how big or small, and give them a chance to enjoy sport and fitness just like the rest of us do,” she notes.
By recruiting high school students as junior coaches, Heroes of Hope aims to educate and spread awareness about people with disabilities.
Murphy adds: “We want to teach the younger generation that people of determination are just like us; they just access the world differently. We need to narrow the gap between neurotypical children and children with special needs.”
A growing movement
Meanwhile, Wolves Zone, the mixed martial arts academy at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, has welcomed people of determination into its group classes, personal training sessions and kids’ camps ever since it launched in 2021. It also runs classes for students with special needs at GEMS Education schools.
Hana Saad, co-founder of Wolves Zone, explains that their gym is designed to be a ‘safe space’ for all.
“Ibrahim Elsawi, co-founder and coach at Wolves Zone, used to run training programmes for Special Olympics UAE,” she says.
“He was so touched by how engaged, appreciative and happy the students were that we decided to make our gym accessible to people of determination as well.”
Martial arts can bring multiple benefits for people with special needs, including improved body awareness and confidence, and better motor and coordination skills.
“One boy with autism was initially very intimidated and reluctant to take part, but now he loves it and his focus and concentration has improved so much,” Saad continues. “He takes such pride in his progress and it’s extremely rewarding to see how he has been able to overcome his perceived limitations.”
“Another boy with special needs came along to one of our kids’ camps. It was such a joy to see him happily participating in the activities with his two sisters. His mum was so grateful that he was able to enroll as well.”
Suzi Curtis, an adaptive needs trainer from Abu Dhabi, also invites people of determination to join the yoga and Pilates classes that she teaches at GymNation, Abu Dhabi Country Club and a number of other venues.
“My cousin has autism and he inspired me to qualify as a special needs trainer,” she explains.
“He’s extremely good at weight lifting and bench pressing, and he hopes to enter the next Special Olympics. People of determination could do so much if we just gave them a chance to try. They too need an outlet and a way of working on their physical health and wellbeing. Some people come to my classes just to move, and that’s totally fine. I always try to spend a bit of time with them before and after. Yoga is a great first class to try as it’s very quiet and calm.”
To find out more please visit heroesofhopeuae.com, wolveszoneuae.com and @fitness.with.suzi.
Harriet Shephard is an Abu Dhabi-based copywriter and freelance journalist with a particular focus on fitness, travel and lifestyle, which, along with good food, also happen to be her main passions when she's not typing away at her laptop.