Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Breaking the chains

By Dahlia Hammouda

A group of young people who have long been excluded from society stood basking in the applause of a packed Cairo Opera House on 15 December. Their eyes glimmering with pride, 32 mentally-disabled boys and girls -- members of Egypt's team at the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Raleigh, North Carolina -- received medals in recognition of their athletic achievements. Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, honourary president of Special Olympics Egypt (SOE), presented the athletes with medals at a ceremony organised by the Harmonious Families Society.

The event was attended by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder and honourary chairman of Special Olympics International (SOI) and sister of late US president John Kennedy, and Sargent Shriver, chairman of the board. The two arrived in Cairo to honour Mrs Mubarak for her outstanding efforts benefiting children with special needs.

In her speech before the ceremony, Mrs Mubarak addressed the young athletes saying, "As we celebrate your wonderful achievements, which we aspired to and believed in, we realise that you have broken a barrier which now no longer exists. You have proven that the human will rises above all else."

The young persons she addressed, perhaps not fully cognizant of her meaning, nevertheless knew and felt two things that night -- that they belonged and that life can be good to them.

Medalist
A triumphant mentally-handicapped athlete after being presented with a medal from Mrs Mubarak
These are precisely the goals that SOI was set up to achieve. Established in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, SOI is a non-profit international programme that provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with mental retardation. SOI's mission is to give these individuals continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and experience the joys of competition and triumph. Children share their gifts and skills in friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community. Since 1968, millions of mentally-disabled children and adults from all over the world have participated in the programme.

Mrs Mubarak asserted that the goal is to empower these young people in a way that would help them adapt to living within families and society. "Their presence should become a positive addition and a productive factor, so that they are able to depend on themselves and cooperate with others in a stable and secure life," she said.

SOI strives to achieve this goal -- to give all persons with mental disabilities the chance to become useful and productive citizens who are accepted and respected in their communities.

The benefits of participation in Special Olympics for people with mental retardation are many: improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater self-confidence, a more positive self-image, friendships and increased family support. Families who participate become stronger as they learn a greater appreciation of their athletes' talents. Community volunteers find out what good friends the athletes can be. And everyone learns more about the capabilities of people with mental retardation.

There are accredited Special Olympics programmes in almost 150 countries around the world. SOE was founded in 1982 under the auspices of Mrs Mubarak. It is chaired by Ismail Osman, head of the board of directors of the Arab Contractors, and its national director is Magda Moussa, head of Misr Language Schools. When they took over the board of SOE in 1994, there were 20 athletes and two foundations involved in the programme in Egypt. Today, there are around 4,400 athletes and 70 foundations taking part in SOE events and activities.

The success of the programme in Egypt was lauded by Mrs Mubarak, who emphasised that the attention given to special-needs individuals was a natural result of the attention the country has given to childhood in general during a decade passed and a new one beginning. "We believe that advancement cannot be divided. The human element is [like] a chain whose rings are connected and tightly knit. Integrated care is the path to true human development," she said.

Within the past several years, the country has been turning its attention to children with special needs -- the handicapped, children born with genetic defects, the mentally retarded and street children. This is due to the tireless efforts and sound directives of Mrs Mubarak, as well as increased awareness of children's rights following President Hosni Mubarak's announcements of two consecutive decades (this and the next) dedicated to the Egyptian child.

The Integrated Care Society was established in 1977 as a non-profit organisation with the main objective of providing social, cultural and health care to school children. Founded and chaired by Mrs Mubarak, the society has taken a pioneering interest in promoting activities for the disabled, particularly those with sensory impairments and mental handicaps. It has also established a Centre for Children with Disabilities that provides assessment, family counselling and referral services.

Due to the success of the programme in Egypt, SOI gave SOE the approval for the Cairo Mega City programme in 1998, the first such venture the SOI has funded outside the United States. The programme's goal is to increase sports opportunities for mentally disabled people living in densely populated metropolitan areas through the direct involvement and participation of the families and the political, business, church, school and civic leaders of these communities.

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