GENERAL A fun day for special needs children in Dubai
The Reaching U Family Fun Day, an annual event, aims at integrating special needs children with mainstream society, says Reena Amos Dyes
A little boy barely three, tugs at his mother's shirt, points to a few children in wheelchairs and asks her, "Mom, why can't they walk?" He and 100 other children are at the Jumeirah Beach Park in Dubai where there are bouncy castles, obstacle courses, climbing walls, and trampolines.
While some kids are running around, rolling on the grass, patiently waiting their turn at the face-painting stand or the food and drink kiosks, a clutch of children are giggling as they watch a puppet show. There are also magicians, a theatrical show and henna painting stands, reminding you of an old-fashioned country fair.
But this fair is special - it's the Reaching U Family Fun Day. An annual event for the past five years, it helps provide a relaxed environment for special needs and mainstream children to interact.
As the little boy's mother bends down to explain to him as simply as she can why the child is in a wheelchair and unable to run and play, one man looks on with a satisfied smile - Nick Watson, Co-Founder of Reaching U.
"The family fun day is about promoting awareness and integration, and if even just one mainstream child high-fives a special needs kid or even asks his parents about the special kids he saw at the park today, our purpose is served," he says.
Nick's journey in the world of a special needs child began nine years ago when his son Rio was born. For the first six months no one suspected anything was wrong with Rio.
"But when Rio was six months old he had his first seizure," Nick recalls. "He was gasping for breath and went completely blue. After that he started having seizures on a regular basis for no apparent reason."
Nick and his wife, Delphine, had to endure five extremely frightening and emotionally draining years before the doctors could pinpoint the reason for Rio's condition.
"He has a chromosome missing. This is called 1Q44 deletion de novo, which is a very rare,'' his father explains.
According to experts, most children with this condition will require lifelong care and specialist medical support. They usually suffer learning difficulties and intellectual disabilities too and struggle with abstract and mathematical concepts although some have a good memory. They could be easily distracted and tend to have a short attention span - conditions that can make learning a challenge.
"Rio lives in his own little world. He can't talk and he has mobility and motor skill issues. Earlier he could not recognise anyone, but now as he is getting older he has started recognising people and knows who we are," Nick explains.
Once Rio turned five, the couple, who run U Concept, a boutique health club in Dubai, decided to send him to school.
Recalling the first time he took his son to the Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre (RPC) for children with special needs Nick, 45, says, "It scared the living daylights out of me to think that I was putting him in a special school. But once I had been there a number of times I realised how beautiful these children are, how they just live in the moment and how amazing the environment at the RPC is." Rio did well there, says Nick.
Once their son was happily settled at the centre, Nick and Delphine, who have a daughter Tia, five, began to think of a way to make life for other kids like Rio better.
"I thought we are so lucky to have such a good school for our son, and to have the support of the community here. So why not give something back to the community that has given us so much?" says Nick.
"We started doing gym training with special children in our gym at the health club.
"The clients at the gym which we operate reacted very positively to the kids also using the facilities and we realised how important it was to raise awareness and increase interaction with people in the mainstream in order to create a community feeling and make integration within society easier."
Early integration is key
Five years ago Nick and Delphine decided to organise an event where people with special needs children could go to interact with others. The aim was to encourage exposure to, and integration with, mainstream children.
The first Reaching U Family Fun Day (RUFFD) was held at Jumeirah Beach Park to sensitise people to the fact that though they are different from the rest of us, special needs children are very much a part of our society, says Nick.
"I believe that the earlier the integration between kids with special needs and mainstream children begins, the better it is, as then the mainstream children realise that this is all part of life," Nick says.
The fun day was a hit right from the word go. Many parents with children with special needs came and enjoyed themselves in a relaxed atmosphere with no one staring at them.
The remarkable feedback the Watsons got encouraged them to do even more. "Some of the parents just came and gave us a big thank you hug and for weeks after that we got texts and emails thanking us," recalls Nick.
Joanne Evans, whose ten-year-old son David suffers from Global Developmental Delay (GDD), is a regular at the event.
A child with GDD has delayed achievement of one or more developmental milestones like speech, motor skills, cognitive skills, social or emotional skills.
The mother of two says, "We have been going to RUFFD for the last three years. It's quite an exciting event. Our little special needs community gets together on a wider scale.
"For us parents it's a great day as we can all relax together, interact with parents of special kids, compare notes and not feel awkward because people are not staring at us as they usually do when we are in most public places.
"It's a lovely opportunity for our kids to meet the wider world as they just go from home to school and school to home. They are just locked away in their own little world with not much of a social life. "
David is at the RPC and through his school he goes to mainstream schools on Friendship Day [this year it is August 5] and he really enjoys those visits and I know that he enjoys this day out too."
A day the whole family can benefit from
According to Joanne, during the family fun day people make an effort to interact with special children, smile at them, give them high fives and try to communicate with them.
"The mainstream kids are also involved with them. So it's a special day as normally in the outside world they are just not tolerated due to lack of understanding and exposure.
"Most people don't know how to react and you will find people can be a little intolerant to a particular noise that your child makes. People gawk, give stares full of pity or just become awkward around them," she says.
David absolutely loves this day. "It's a free run for him. There are different things to eat, to play on, see, hear, do. So from a sensory perspective it's a huge treat for him,'' Joanna adds. "Our daughter Alys loves it too. She has made friends with siblings of special needs children and so they can share their feelings with each other too. They bond with each other. It's a lovely, heart-warming experience for us."
The family fun day is a day to enjoy, as well as a learning curve for mainstream parents and kids too. Tor Packer, a stay-at-home mother of two boys, Tao, six, and Sabre, two, has been going to the fun day for the past four years. She says, "It's all about having fun for me and my kids. We enjoy the downtime with the family and it makes us feel part of the community as we expats are away from our family and friends.
"Also, it's a great way to raise awareness about special needs kids. The fun day helps build what a community is. It helps children like my son Tao realise that there are kids out there who are different from him.
"On one of these days out Tao saw a little girl sitting in a wheelchair and getting her face painted and he asked me, ‘Mum why can't that little girl walk? Why can't that little boy talk?' So I explained to him that some children are born with certain conditions.
"Now he knows and accepts special kids as a normal part of life. I feel that the RUFFD is not about differences but about similarities.
"My son realises now that though the special children are different from him, they have the same needs and enjoy the same things that he does, like face painting or balloons. This day teaches him all about tolerating differences and integrating. On a day like this I walk away with a bigger heart knowing that everyone has had a great time."
It seems the event is filling a need in society as its popularity has increased over the years. The number of people attending the family fun day has gone up from 1,000-odd to nearly 3,000 this year.
"We have so many people coming to the fun day, that we have decided to move it to Zabeel Park next year as it is a larger venue," Nick says.
The Watsons are also overwhelmed by the response from the community, especially the mainstream children.
"Once a special needs child was trying to climb an inflatable slide but could not do it," recalls Nick. "So a teenager helped him climb the slide, inch by inch.
"It took them ages, but they did and once they were on top of the slide the teenager took the little boy in his lap and came down the slide with him. That really touched my heart."
It's a true community effort
The event that started out as an effort by just a handful of people has now turned into a full-fledged community contribution.
"So many companies donate food, drinks, toys and provide us their services like bouncy castles etc at dirt-cheap prices," says Nick.
"Our DJ gives us his time for free, also Dubai Drums who performed at this year's event did it free. Many schools, organisations, and charities come out in droves to participate in the event. This year we had a skydiving team that jumped into the event that was just amazing.
"Charity is not just about giving your money or time - it can be as simple as helping a child with special needs climb a bouncy or sit on a swing. We just want the people from the mainstream to come down for the day. If they end up helping out or want to help out in the future then that's their choice."
However, Nick is not satisfied with what he is doing right now and he wants to make RUFFD bigger and better than ever.
"Even though Reaching U is achieving its purpose, we still want more. We want it to become a big special community event like the Terry Fox run, which touches millions of people around the world."
One just hopes he gets his wish.
Making a difference
Who: Nick Watson
What: the Reaching U Family Fun Day
Why: to bring about awareness and integration of people with special needs to the community of Dubai