Female Special Olympics athletes testified to the power of inclusion during a discussion at the Mohamed Bin Zayed Majlis lecture on 13 March, 2019. The event, entitled Loretta Claiborne: Changing the Game for Inclusion, took place just 24-hours before the 2019 World Games opening ceremony in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Mohamed Bin Zayed Majlis is a high-level lecture series created by H.H Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to facilitate cross-cultural discussions about big ideas that can shape the future.
Loretta Claiborne, whom the panel discussion was named after, is a Special Olympics athlete, Chief Inspiration Officer and Vice Chair of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors. She gave a rousing keynote speech as photographs from her journey as a competitor and leader of the inclusion movement were projected behind her. “I look at sports as empowerment for me as a woman and a person of determination,” Loretta said. “I am so proud that these are the first Games to have 40% female athlete participation.”
Loretta praised the term “People of Determination” and used it throughout her speech to refer to people with intellectual disabilities. It is a phrase that’s been used in the UAE since 2006 to describe people with disabilities. In fact, she said this to Emiratis, “You are way ahead of the game for inclusion for all.”
In addition to Loretta’s achievements, the lecture focused on the UAE’s commitment to inclusion and the importance of including women and girls in all walks of life. Leaders in sports, government, business, entertainment, media, civil society and religion were moved by the powerful words shared on the stage. In attendance were Dr. Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics Chairman, and His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
From giving Ted Talks lectures and introducing President Clinton at the 1995 Special Olympics World Summer Games, to speaking at schools and local events, Loretta continues to motivate thousands of people with her work and insights. The audience learned that she holds two honorary doctorate degrees and there is a hospital named after her in her hometown of York, Pennsylvania, USA. On this night, she credited Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver with her success. “Because one person empowered me, I have the power to empower others.”
Competitive Ice Skater Zahra Lari moderated the panel discussion on how the inclusion of women and girls leads to success. Zahra is no stranger to standing up for her beliefs as a Muslim woman. She is the first woman from the UAE to compete in an international skating competition wearing a hijab. She appears in the Nike campaign celebrating Middle Eastern women.
Zahra referred to Loretta as her hero saying, “She shows that no one can stop you because you are a woman or because you are unique.”
To showcase the celebration of inclusion of women in the Middle East North Africa region, four female Special Olympics athletes from the Region joined Loretta on the panel to share their personal stories of inclusion. The discussion was energetic with topics covering female empowerment, stereotypes, leadership and business.
The first panelist was Chaica Al Qassimi, a martial arts athlete from the UAE who has traveled internationally as a Special Olympics competitor and athlete leader. She shared this advice, “Fight for what you believe in. Fight for your rights, and always inclusion, inclusion, inclusion!”
Also on the panel was Mariam Ahmad Mohammad Thiab from Special Olympics Kuwait. During the 9th Special Olympics Middle East North Africa Regional Games, she worked as an on-the-ground evaluator as part of a review team that made recommendations for the 2019 Special Olympics World Games. In January 2019, she was selected to serve a four-year term as a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger.
Joining them on stage was Samia Siddik, the very first female athlete from Saudia Arabia competing at a Special Olympics World Games. During these Games, she will be competing in basketball.
Rounding out the discussion was Mariam Azzab from Egypt, a past World Games silver and bronze medal-winning equestrian. A businesswoman, she spoke about her Four Biscuits Bakery project that she started with a group of friends who also have Down syndrome.