The vibrancy in the gym was palpable. Laughter and shouts of encouragement filled the air as women flipped tires, waved battle ropes, and worked together at Al Thiqah Club, the place Klaithem Almatrooshi built.

Four months prior, this same gym sat empty. Like many other countries in the region, in Sharjah—the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates—women and girls with disabilities face severe social stereotypes; according to the UN, nearly 80% of Emirati women encounter negative attitudes and social restrictions based on disability. Fortunately, the Al Thiqah Club had a visionary in their midst.

Klaithem describes her journey as one person with two birthdays. October 8, 1966—the day she was born. April 28, 1990—the day she survived a car accident that left her without mobility in her legs. Nearly three decades ago, lying in an Abu Dhabi hospital with the weight of a new reality, Klaithem found the courage to do the one thing she needed: keep going.

Klaithem made it her life’s mission to change the negative perceptions about people with disabilities in the UAE. Recognizing the connection between sports and school participation, she has worked tirelessly to ensure that children with disabilities have access to education. Klaithem currently serves as the administrative manager with the Ministry of Health and trains volunteers on ways to work with people with physical disabilities. She also leads women’s programming with Al Thiqah Club.

In 2019, because of her work, Klaithem was selected as one of 15 international leaders for the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). The five-week leadership development initiative, which is implemented by the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, matches international changemakers with executives from notable adaptive sport organizations in the U.S. During this time, delegates gain valuable insights into sports management, networking, and best practices, while also developing a sport-based, social business plan.

Klaithem was matched with Peggy Turner, Adapted Sports Coordinator for TIRR Memorial Hermann, a renowned rehabilitation and research hospital in Houston, TX. As a child, Peggy was denied opportunities to participate in sports until Title IX was passed her sophomore year of high school. Knowing how it felt to be told to take her ball and go home, Peggy has spent much of her professional career providing access to sports and physical activity. “Sports changed my life to play and compete,” Peggy says. “I want everyone to have those same opportunities.”

Klaithem and Peggy bonded over this shared vision. “While I was in America, I was fortunate to learn from [Peggy], my sister and my teacher,” Klaithem says. During their time, Klaithem developed her social business plan, which focused on restructuring the women’s section at Al Thiqah Club to encourage more girls and women to participate in physical activity. She wanted to address the inequalities facing athletes with disabilities, while also establishing a facility that builds a system of awareness about all disabilities through sport and activity. Seeing the comprehensive therapeutic recreation and rehabilitation services at TIRR and the Junior Hotwheels—a wheelchair basketball team Peggy leads and coaches—helped her solidify her vision.

After her GSMP experience, Klaithem returned to Sharjah with a newfound sense of purpose, and wasted no time setting her plan in motion. “I started viewing challenges as opportunities,” she says.

Motivated by Peggy’s energy and her network of global changemakers, Klaithem presented her business plan to the club’s Board of Directors, gained their support, and began implementing programs immediately. Within four months, the culture of the club was transformed. Women from across the city, many of whom had never engaged in physical activity of any kind, joined in games and team-building exercises and turned what once was an empty, trodden gym into a vibrant space of activity. Now, 90% of the club’s activities for women focus on exercise and physical activity. “We cannot be spectators,” Klaithem says.

With such success, Peggy traveled to the UAE in November 2019 for the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai and to support Klaithem and her work at Al Thiqah Club. Peggy remembers Klaithem expressing frustration about the apathy of female club members in using the gym, so when Peggy walked through the doors to an electrified atmosphere with more than 40 women with cognitive and physical disabilities benefiting from Klaithem’s vision and perseverance, she was thrilled. “I saw many active women who were using similar equipment that we use at TIRR,” she says. “That was the most emotionally impactful experience for me.”

It was meaningful for Klaithem, as well, to show Peggy the lessons she gained during the GSMP and her time at TIRR. “Peggy’s visit was the most beautiful event and the most beautiful gift for me,” she says. Her visit to the club also made a positive impression on the women exercising that day, as Peggy celebrated her 60th birthday by participating in activities right alongside them.

Peggy’s genuine kindness and continued encouragement of Klaithem is one of the other noteworthy outcomes of the GSMP. “Thanks to the support and the investment of mentors like Peggy and host organizations like TIRR Memorial Hermann, we continue to see the power of sport being used in innovative ways to create more inclusive communities,” says CSPS Founder and Director, Dr. Sarah Hillyer.

Peggy and Klaithem bonded in their collective desire to unite their communities through sport, and they continue to serve as sources of inspiration for one another, and to us all. When asked what motivated her to be a change maker in her community, Klaithem said, “I believe our lives carry good, no matter how bad the circumstances.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act had a significant impact on international human rights laws, which led to the expansion of adaptive sport opportunities across the world. In May of 2008, Article 30 of UAEs Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, allowed persons with disabilities the right to equal access to participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport, and ensured all cultural activities were held in places accessible to persons with disabilities. 

Center for Sport, Peace, & Society

Global Sports Mentoring Program

TIRR Memorial Hermann