The general assumption is that disabilities are taboo in Arab culture. True, we see few disabled people out and about in the community here – when was the last time you saw someone who is blind or in a wheelchair at the mall? Traditionally in Arab culture, individuals with disabilities have been kept at home, away from the public eye. Not so at Dubai Club for Special Sports. Here, disabilities are not only very visible, but they are presented with confidence.
Giving Time Out a tour of the club is its chairman, Thani Juma Berregad. He tells us that when the club was established in 1998, it was simply ‘a small wooden room’. Now there are three football pitches – used by deaf players and for athletics practice – as well as a court that doubles for basketball and volleyball, and a gym. In the latter, we meet a coach who tells us he is taking three of the club’s athletes to the World Powerlifting Championships in Kuala Lumpur in July. Berregad adds proudly that the club has won 750 medals at international, regional and local paralympic championships over the years; its members even competed in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing (where weightlifter Mohammed Khamis won a silver medal). You may not have heard of Dubai Club for Special Sports – we hadn’t, until a matter of weeks ago – but its steady progress and mounting successes suggest we’ll be hearing a lot more of it in future.
Berregad certainly hopes so. ‘It was hard at the beginning, but through sports we have had a lot of achievements,’ he says. ‘There’s still a long way to go [regarding integrating disabled people into Dubai society], but if you compare 10 years ago to now, we are much better.’ For example, he says that employers rarely consider putting a disabled person on the payroll, but sports are helping to change this attitude. How? ‘Once they see what our athletes can do worldwide, we can convince employers to give them a chance,’ he explains. ‘Give them hard work and see what they can do.’
It’s an interesting idea. By visually presenting the feats that disabled people can achieve, the club aims to prove that its members can be ‘useful’ members of society. Berregad emphasises that members’ sporting achievements help to build both their own confidence and confidence in them from the community at large.
The club isn’t just concerned with producing world-class athletes, though. There are sports programmes for those who just want some exercise and fun, and there’s a social committee that aims to bring Dubai’s disabled community together with regular events – and even mass weddings. As we’re shown around, there’s the palpable feel of a close-knit community. Everyone greets each other affectionately in the corridors and – perhaps most striking of all – is unfailingly smiling. We even happen upon a lecture where members are hearing about government plans to give them new, disabled-friendly homes. There are lots of questions and good-natured banter directed at the speaker.
We ask Berregad about the main challenges of running the club. ‘Financially, yes, there are challenges,’ he responds. ‘But we work hard not to stop because of these challenges.’ There are plans to build new facilities – a stadium fit for athletics training and a swimming pool – but he admits these have been put on hold because of the financial climate. He hopes the new facilities will be completed within the next three or four years. ‘When we’ve got more facilities, it means we can have more people,’ he observes. The club provides its facilities (as well as transport to and from the venue) free of charge, as well as a meal a day for its members, which may account for some of its financial struggles.
Still, Berregad is determined to soldier on. ‘Our members have earned that,’ he says. ‘We’re working to build up more stars, more heroes, more champions.’
To find out more about the club or to volunteer, call 04 298 8205.