“Every person has something to give to the community, and they do it beautifully, they do it strongly, and they do it with passion,” says Nibal Fetouni, director of initiatives at Special Olympics Middle East/North Africa.
With over 5.7 million athletes with intellectual disabilities registered across the globe, Special Olympics is spearheading a revolution, “the revolution is inclusion,” says Nibal. Her own journey as a pillar of the inclusive community began with her supporting her father in bringing Special Olympics to Lebanon.
In 1989, while studying at the American University of Beirut, she volunteered to recruit volunteers, visit potential sponsors, write athlete stories, while also training athletes. Several years later, she was recognized for her continuous efforts as a dedicated volunteer and was awarded a full-time position.
Brought to life by Eunice Kennedy in 1968, Special Olympics was founded in honor of her sister Rosemary, who lived with intellectual disabilities. “No one believed in her abilities other than Eunice. She always said that if we take the time to listen to their emotions, guide them, they can do great things,” explains Nibal.
With over 200 countries and jurisdictions hosting local Special Olympics programs, the movement hosts seven regional offices to integrate inclusion within all communities while embracing their cultural, social, and educational differences. Special Olympics is using sports as a tool to pioneer the integration of athletes of determination into the community.
“It’s more than a 9-5 job. You live and breathe Special Olympics,” says Nibal. “I even get ideas in my sleep and have a notebook by my bed to write them down in the middle of the night.”
In 2019, the region saw the largest inclusive sporting event when the UAE hosted Special Olympics World Summer Games. The Games were held in March in Abu Dhabi with nearly 7,000 participating athletes.
“It was the most unified Games you could have. People who didn’t speak the same language found ways to communicate, bond, and laugh together,” says Nibal. “This joy will lead to legacy. We saw friendships built through these games, delegations went back to their countries and stayed connected. This was the most important aspect for us.”
Following the World Games and right before the region went into lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, Nibal and her team were guided by the regional President Ayman Abdel Wahab, that the Pan African Games need to be held in Cairo in 2020.
“It was December, we were planning the first-ever Games, held with the collaboration of two regions: Special Olympics Africa and Special Olympics Middle East/North Africa in the history of the movement. My colleagues and I were in disbelief,” she recalls with humor. “But as we continued working, it was really empowering, when we were in Cairo it was pure happiness all around us.”
The Pan African Games in Cairo successfully brought together 34 delegations from two regions. “What was special about these games is that 50 percent of the athletes were female. It was the first game in the history of the Special Olympics where we achieved this 50/50 ratio.”
Once the pandemic hit, they continued their efforts virtually, hosting programs for athletes online so that they can stay fit with the help of their families.
Alongside sports, Special Olympics works to train their athletes so that they can become the leaders who spearhead this global initiative. “Some are good at public speaking, some are good at being health role models, some with administrative roles, and many other initatives.”
The initiatives that Nibal works on are inclusive of not just athlete leaders but siblings, families, and youth, helping to further build inclusive mindsets within the community using the power of non-sports initiatives such as youth building programs and sibling workshops.
“There are approximately 7.9 billion people in the world and statistics say we have 200 million people with intellectual disabilities in the world. My goal is to reach the 7 billion without intellectual disabilities because I know how to reach People of Determination,” she says.
“Every person can assist, and we believe sharing these stories is the way forward. Especially with youth, when you tell them a success story or show them a picture, they want to be a part of it.”
Across the world, people with intellectual disabilities tend to be neglected as often their disabilities are invisible ones, resulting in them being denied the basic rights of every other person such as employment, health care, and education.
“Every human being has complete right to live beautifully,” says Nibal. “When I first started going to schools to introduce the Special Olympics, the youth had great ideas to do new things. We want to keep reaching them so they can assist us in making it a better world for our athletes.”