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Photograph courtesy of Amy Kang

Inclusion and the Special Olympics: A Conversation with Kristie Koenig and Janet Njelesani

“Inclusion is about issues that matter to all of us”

Mar 16, 2019

The Special Olympics World Games 2019 is now taking place here in Abu Dhabi. Welcoming around 7,000 athletes from over 170 countries to compete in 24 sports, the Olympics will be the largest sport and humanitarian event in the world this year.
With this special event currently being celebrated and 2019 being designated as the Year of Tolerance by the UAE government, there has been increasing attention on the topic of inclusion of People of Determination in the country.
NYU Abu Dhabi supported this cause by helping organize the Global Youth Summit and many other events. These included the Saadiyat Sew-Cial, where participants made crafts for the Global Youth Summit, and the The Determined! Film Series. A course titled Disability in a Global Context: Advancing Inclusion in the UAE was offered during the 2019 January Term which focused on the topic of inclusion inside and outside of the UAE.
As volunteer ambassador for the Special Olympics, I had the opportunity to interview two professors who taught the course — Kristie Koenig and Janet Njelesani — regarding inclusion and how it relates to the Special Olympics.
Kristie Koenig is an Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy and Department Chair at NYU Steinhardt. She investigates the effectiveness of inclusive programs and resources offered by U.S. public schools for children with autism spectrum disorders.
Janet Njelesani is an Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at NYU Steinhardt. Her research looks into school violence against children with disabilities in East Africa.
Kang: What motivated you to design and co-teach this J-Term course on inclusion in the UAE?
Koenig: We have already been teaching a series of graduate and undergraduate level courses on disability in a global context in various NYU sites. Since the Special Olympics, along with many events that advocate for inclusion, are being hosted in the UAE soon, we thought that it would be a great opportunity for us to be here and teach this class as part of the series this year.
Kang: Does a more inclusive society benefit everyone? If so, how?
Njelesani: Absolutely. Inclusion is about issues that matter to all of us. Take ramps, for example. As much as ramps increase accessibility for people using wheelchairs, they are also convenient for people using strollers. In this way, ramps have been universally designed to accommodate the needs of many people, including those with disabilities.
Another interesting example is text messaging. Text messaging was invented initially to better facilitate communication for deaf people. Now, I’m pretty sure we all benefit from text messaging. The same goes for video subtitles, which are not only helpful for deaf people but for all of us when we are in a very crowded room, for instance.
Kang: Speaking from the perspective of occupational therapist(s), how does participating in physical activity (or playing sports) benefit people with intellectual disabilities?
Njelesani: There are both psychological and physical benefits to it. Playing sports often involves being part of a team and bonding with peers. This can definitely encourage People of Determination to interact and form friendships with a wide range of people. Also, physical activities usually operate on routines, which is beneficial both physically and psychologically for people with intellectual disabilities.
Kang: What kind of impact do you foresee in the hosting of the Special Olympics in the UAE?
Koenig: Hopefully, through the Special Olympics and other national efforts that support inclusion, people living in the UAE will get more chances to interact and build relationships with People of Determination. Simply seeing children with disabilities playing around in malls, just like any other children, can positively change people’s perceptions on disability. This will definitely help break down the barrier between people with and without disabilities and will have intergenerational influence.
Kang: How have your overall experience been teaching your J-Term class?
Njelesani: It was a fantastic experience. All of our students were amazing and passionate to learn and engage in discussions throughout the three weeks. Our class was actually composed of 17 people from 17 different countries, and so each student was able to bring a unique perspective about their countries’ policies related to inclusion and people with disabilities.
Kang: Thank you so much for speaking with me. Do you have any final thoughts?
Koenig: Society and those around the individuals with disabilities are the most disabling condition, not the disability. A major reason why people with disabilities face discrimination and stigma in society is because their voices are severely underrepresented. Despite the fact that 15 percent of the global population have disabilities, we don’t see 15 percent of characters in TV with disabilities. This leads to the question of how we can make their voices heard and better raise awareness about the importance of inclusion. One way is through events like the Special Olympics. Another way is for us to recognize that inclusion matters to all of us, regardless of our background. Education in inclusion should not be exclusive to experts and students in disability studies or occupational therapy. If all of us start to break down our negative prejudice against people of determination and realize that inclusion matters to all of us, disability will just become so different.
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