Loretta Claiborne Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The UAE is way ahead of the Special Olympics for inclusion, calling people with special needs “people of determination” and adopting the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, said an athlete turned leader in the movement.

“The UAE has set a precedence for women and all people of determination so that we all work, play and live together with equal rights,” Loretta Claiborne, Chief Inspiration Officer and Vice Chair of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors, told the audience at the majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

Claiborne spoke of her inspiring story. She was born in 1953 with partial blindness and an intellectual disability at a time when people with her diagnosis were frequently shunted into institutions. Her mother, who was supporting seven children on a very small income, refused to heed the advice of doctors who suggested the same fate for her daughter.

Her mother’s support kept Claiborne out of an institution, but her time in special education classes in York, Pennsylvania, came with its own set of challenges. She found herself mocked and excluded by her schoolmates.

Claiborne said the Special Olympics came into her life at a difficult moment, as years of frustration threatened to boil over. The prospect of competing in Special Olympics proved capable of calming her — and opened a new world of accomplishment and advocacy.

“When I first went to the Special Olympics I didn’t think I would be worth two cents. But a coach told me, ‘Loretta, you’ve got to stop using your fists, and use your feet more. You are beautiful, you can learn, you can do anything.’ And if I wouldn’t have walked into that coach, I would probably be sitting in an institution today,” Claiborne said.

She first ran in Special Olympics in 1970, at the launch of the programme in Pennsylvania. In the decades that followed, Claiborne has continued to compete, winning six gold medals at six iterations of Special Olympics World Games.

Claiborne has also taken part in more than two dozen marathons and a diverse array of other sports. Her best time in those marathons — three hours, three minutes in the Boston Marathon in 1982 — placed her in the top 100 women finishers on the day.

She gave back to the movement as one of its leading spokespeople. She became the first Special Olympics athlete to serve on the organisation’s board and she currently works as its “Chief Inspiration Officer.”

She has been extensively recognised for her work, including ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 1996 and honorary degrees from Quinnipiac University and Villanova University. In 2000, Disney produced a biographical film about her life called “The Loretta Claiborne Story.”