▶ As Down Syn­drome Aware­ness Month ends, one de­ter­mined ath­lete has re­warded those who trusted her


Clara Lehmkuhl gets her love of danc­ing – and prob­a­bly her love of tennis, too – from her grand­fa­ther.

Basie Pre­to­rius died five years ago but his 27-year-old grand­daugh­ter, bet­ter known as Clari, keeps a pic­ture of him on her bed­side table.

“I know he’s look­ing down on me right now,” she said.

And how proud he would be. Clari, who has played tennis since she was aged six, is in daily train­ing for the Spe­cial Olympics World Sum­mer Games in Abu Dhabi next March. She is sched­uled to com­pete as the only fe­male sin­gles tennis player rep­re­sent­ing the UAE.

She is also the coun­try’s first cer­ti­fied Zumba in­struc­tor with Down syn­drome, earn­ing her third set of qual­i­fi­ca­tions at a con­ven­tion of 7,500 other teach­ers in the US this sum­mer.

Clari was born in Al­ber­ton, South Africa, the mid­dle child of par­ents Lizette and Aart Lehmkuhl. Mrs Lehmkuhl knew right away that some­thing was not right with her baby, be­cause of the way her lit­tle legs would flop open dur­ing nappy changes.

It took some con­vinc­ing of doc­tors and six ex­cru­ci­at­ing weeks for the re­sults, but it turned out that her mother was right – Clari had Down syn­drome, a ge­netic mu­ta­tion that re­sults in phys­i­cal vari­a­tions as well as mild to mod­er­ate in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties. Peo­ple with Down syn­drome also tend to be so­cial, af­fec­tion­ate and, like Clari, ded­i­cated.

Mrs Lehmkuhl did not wal­low in the news for long, how­ever. She got to work.

With zero in the way of govern­ment sup­port, she en­listed vol­un­teers from her lo­cal church to help in boost­ing Clari’s mus­cle tone.

“We worked five hours a day, five days a week,” she said.

Mrs Lehmkuhl had to teach Clari to read and write be­fore a reg­u­lar school would ac­cept her, and when they did it was front-page news in their home­town. Hav­ing a main­stream ed­u­ca­tion has made all the dif­fer­ence in Clari’s progress ever since, her mother said.

“She learnt to lead a nor­mal life,” she said. “That’s all I wanted for her, main­stream­ing. It’s the most im­por­tant thing I could wish for her.”

The Lehmkuhl fam­ily has lived in the UAE for 12 years now. Clari even­tu­ally en­tered the work­ing world, first at a gym near her fam­ily’s com­pound, and later, for four happy years do­ing a sec­re­tar­ial job at NYU Abu Dhabi and stints at Roche and Da­man as part of the Se­dra Foun­da­tion’s in­clu­sive in­tern­ship pro­gramme.

Mrs Lehmkuhl con­tacted the Abu Dhabi gym Fit­ness Ex­press, which works with more than a dozen chil­dren who have autism as well as phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. They hired Clari to teach Zumba at the Danat Com­plex fa­cil­ity this sum­mer, three classes a week.

The down­side? So far, no one has signed up.

Clari keeps busy join­ing other Zumba teach­ers, in­struct­ing classes for a few songs. Fit­ness Ex­press’s Anas­ta­sia Al­daeva, a psy­chol­o­gist, thinks per­haps the city is sim­ply not quite ready to em­brace some­one with Down syn­drome as a fully fledged teacher.

“She has ex­actly the same qual­i­fi­ca­tions as any teacher in Abu Dhabi, be­cause Zumba is a uni­fied pro­gramme,” Ms Aldeava said. “She went through ex­actly the same pro­gramme. She’s train­ing ev­ery day.”

Oc­to­ber is Down syn­drome Aware­ness Month, and aware­ness of chil­dren and adults with the con­di­tion in Abu Dhabi has grown in re­cent years, said Ameera Al Qu­bati, who founded the Emi­rates Down Syn­drome As­so­ci­a­tion, Abu Dhabi Chap­ter, in 2012.

“They’re able to do ev­ery­thing you can give them, they are able to be in school and they are able to work and, like other adults, they are able to live alone,” she said. “We just need to give them trust. So­ci­ety should trust them and give them their rights.”

Mrs Al Qu­bati tried 11 schools be­fore she found one that would take her son Saif, 9, who was also born with Down syn­drome. And even though things have im­proved and Saif has flour­ished, there are many ar­eas where he is not ac­cepted, in­clud­ing the af­ter-school sports pro­grammes that read­ily ac­cept her other chil­dren.

The EDSA, which has more than 200 peo­ple with Down syn­drome on its Abu Dhabi data­base, is run by eight vol­un­teers, pro­vid­ing sup­port and or­gan­is­ing work­shops and events. Its mem­bers range from par­ents-to-be to a 53-yearold woman from Colom­bia, who lives with her sis­ter.

And while things are get­ting bet­ter, af­ter Saif grad­u­ates from high school, aside from rare one-off pro­grammes, there is re­ally no place for him – and other Down syn­drome adults liv­ing in the UAE – to go.

“It’s like a night­mare for me,” she said.

“I’m al­ways think­ing how he will be, where he will be work­ing, will he be in­de­pen­dent?”

Hav­ing a main­stream ed­u­ca­tion has made all the dif­fer­ence in Clari’s progress LIZETTE LEHMKUHL Clara’s mother

Vic­tor Besa / The Na­tional

Clara Lehmkuhl will be the only fe­male sin­gles tennis player rep­re­sent­ing the UAE at the Spe­cial Olympics

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