This op-ed was written by Kathleen Bates, Senior ASD/Special Needs Aquatic Specialist and Coach at Qatar Foundation, on the impact of opening up inclusive opportunities – and how Qatar is gradually breaking down stigmas

I have been living and working in Qatar since 2008, and over the past 12 years, I – along with all the population of Qatar – have witnessed first-hand how the country has grown, evolved and developed.

Aside from the changes in the skyline and infrastructure, there have been tremendous social and societal shifts towards people with special needs and disabilities. In my time here, I have been very involved and passionate in creating and providing sports opportunities for the special needs population to be involved. I can very confidently say that, each year, there has been improvement and progress.

QF OP EDIn September 2018, through a generous private financial donation, Qatar Foundation officially launched its Ability Friendly programme, and within only a few short months we were delivering classes in both adapted swimming and football. The programme initially began by offering these sports classes to people with Autism, and very quickly we modified the programme to be inclusive of all abilities and specific needs.

Its growth has been rapid in terms of participation numbers and abilities. Currently, we have participants aged from three to 50, and with a wide variety of abilities, participating in the swimming and football programmes. We have swimmers and footballers who are visually or hearing impaired, have spinal cord injuries or other mobility impairments, or have Autism or learning difficulties, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or other conditions or challenges.

Qatar Foundation has a genuine opportunity to be the leader for societal changes within the country, using its amazing platform and respected voice. I strongly believe that Qatar is in the early stages of a movement towards inclusion, and the changes are definitely noticeable. It is absolutely true to say that there are still some stigmas and shame around this subject, but I am very pleased to say that there has been tremendous progress and improvement over the years. These changes may not necessarily be quick, but they are happening.

In January 2019, the swimming programme began with only one coach and 21 swimmers. Not even two years later, the programme has five full time coaches and 93 swimmers in the water this term – and a long waiting list – with classes available five days a week in both Education City and Al Khor. The interest in swimming has been impressive and truly identifies a need for specialised and affordable programmes.

The football programme has also been very popular and have experienced a strong growth rate. The football sessions are delivered in small groups based on age and ability within Education City by three specialised and passionate coaches.

The Ability Friendly programme has a long list of goals, ambition and a strategy in place to achieve them. I am thrilled that Qatar Foundation is leading the way to making a sustainable impact around inclusion and accessible sports in the country and region. I am proud to be a part of it.

QF OP EDThese programmes are so important and critical to have within our Qatar community. We are the programme showing you what you can do, and regardless of your age or ability, we can accommodate you.

We are providing opportunities for people to be out of their wheelchairs and floating freely in the water free from pain. We are coaching athletes who just need some minor adaptations to be able to participate in their favourite sport. There are an endless number of therapeutic benefits to participating in a regular sport and activity programme.

And, through our programme, many families are meeting each other and are able to share resources. Families are connecting and building their social networks. Through the Ability Friendly programme, we are very excited and honoured to transform the lives of our participants.

To find out more information about the Ability Friendly programme at Qatar Foundation, either to participate or volunteer, send an email to [email protected] or visit