About seven years ago, faculty in Butler University’s College of Education (COE) read a book written by Timothy Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics—a global organization providing sports programs to empower athletes with intellectual disabilities. Inspired by the book, the COE invited Shriver to visit campus and speak with Butler students.

Shriver refused the offer. Go further than that, he suggested.

“He really challenged us to think about providing opportunities for our students to interact and learn from people with disabilities, rather than just talking about it,” says Erin Garriott, METL ’01, COE Lecturer in Special Education. “He told us, ‘If you give your students five minutes on the basketball court with one of my athletes, that will teach them a lot more about inclusion than I ever could.’”

The idea sparked a relationship between the COE and Special Olympics Indiana (SOIN) that has continued to grow as both organizations work toward their missions of inclusion and advocacy. From hosting shared events on Butler’s campus to inviting SOIN athletes to attend college classes, the ongoing collaboration has evolved into a relationship that was recently formalized through a three-year memorandum of understanding—creating new opportunities for Butler and SOIN to support and learn from one another. 

“The vision of Special Olympics Indiana is that sport will open hearts and minds toward people with intellectual disabilities to create inclusive communities across the state,” says Jeff Mohler, President and CEO of SOIN. “​​With all that Special Olympics does for persons with intellectual disabilities, ultimately, we empower our athletes, allowing staff and volunteers to implement programming with them. Our partnership with Butler University and the College of Education gives us legitimacy in our diversity and inclusion efforts to ensure that our athletes have leadership roles within our great organization.”

Empowered Leaders

When the COE first reached out to Special Olympics Indiana looking for ways to connect, the timing was perfect: SOIN happened to be searching for connections, too. 

Serving more than 18,000 athletes and unified partners across Indiana, SOIN provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. But their work goes well beyond the games, including a biannual weekend workshop called Athlete Leadership University (ALU) that empowers athletes to take on meaningful leadership roles and create inclusive communities. The program provides a college-like experience for participants, allowing them to choose majors, enroll in courses, complete practicums, and graduate. 

ALU began in 2003, but around the time Butler asked how it could support SOIN’s mission, the event needed a new home—ideally at a university. 

“We jumped on the chance to start hosting,” Garriott says. The workshop has been held at Butler since 2017.

While ALU courses are developed primarily by SOIN, Bulldogs from across campus come together to help plan and promote the event, prepare campus spaces, teach classes, and recruit volunteers. Garriott includes ALU support as a central aspect of her special education courses each semester, inviting students from the intro class to help throughout the weekend as those from the capstone serve on the workshop’s leadership team. 

“Being part of ALU was an incredible experience,” says Abbie O’Connell, a junior Elementary Education major with Diverse Learners and Special Education—Mild Intervention minors. “I really enjoyed being able to interact with those who are part of Special Olympics Indiana, and working alongside my classmates to achieve the goal of providing an impactful weekend for the participants.”

In addition to helping plan the fall 2021 event, O’Connell worked closely with athletes in ALU’s Communication major, listening to their speeches and providing constructive feedback. She says the experience taught her that “the smallest interaction can make someone’s day so much better.”

Over the years, the COE has also helped redesign some courses to provide more opportunities for Butler students who want to get involved—and for students and athletes to spend more time together. In one ALU Health & Fitness course, Butler students from an adaptive physical education class serve as instructors, sharing what they have learned in their own classes while earning credit toward their final projects. During the fall 2021 semester of ALU, a panel about disability-related healthcare experiences was organized and moderated by COE students, with Butler Pharmacy students in attendance. 

“Empowerment is the key focus of our Athlete Leadership initiative,” Mohler says. “Our partnership with Butler has helped us take that to the next level.”

Inclusion On The Court

Butler’s collaboration with SOIN goes beyond those two weekends a year, often including shared service projects or social events. And since the relationship began in 2017, one Butler Physical Wellbeing (PWB) class every semester has invited a Special Olympics athlete to participate. 

“That idea of ‘time on a basketball court’ really stuck with us,” Garriott says. 

Faculty from Butler’s Human Movement and Health Science Education program, including Drs. Fritz Ettl, Lisa Farley, and Mindy Welch, were integral to the program’s development and growth. Since the initiative began, Butler has hosted six athletes across four courses: running, weight lifting, soccer, and basketball. 

Last fall, a SOIN athlete named Emily, who has Down Syndrome, joined a basketball class held in the Health and Recreation Complex. The course was taught by J.J. DeBrosse ’95, Butler Director of Graduate and Professional Recruitment, with Garriott co-teaching the inclusion component. DeBrosse believes the chance for students to interact with individuals they might not otherwise cross paths with helps them develop greater emotional intelligence.

“Having Emily in our class has been an incredible opportunity to watch young people learn and grow,” he says. “She has brought an infectious energy and positiveness that everyone feeds off of. The class took to her pretty quick, and they treat her the same way they treat one another.”

While DeBrosse was initially nervous about placing Emily in a live game situation alongside some very strong and competitive classmates, he says she and the Butler students immediately adapted. 

“Right away, they recognized when Emily was on the floor and went to work on getting her in the most advantageous spot. In this, I do not mean the safest (there is really no safe place on a basketball court), but where she could be most helpful to her team,” DeBrosse says. “Emily is shorter than most of my students, but strong enough to shoot from anywhere on the floor. Her teammates have constantly gotten her the ball in positions where she can score on offense. On defense, they have assisted her in identifying the player she is guarding. She has been bumped and knocked over, just like all of the students, but she quickly gets up and right back into the action.”

John McGuire, a junior Finance major, says he also started the semester with some hesitancy based on his minimal experience interacting with individuals who have disabilities. But after making an effort to support and spend time with Emily, he says, “she tore down my assumptions.”

“It was very cool to watch Emily try her absolute hardest in each drill we did,” he says. “Her competitive drive is admirable, and she never doubts herself in doing anything. When I’m shooting with Emily during our warm-ups, I laugh every time because it always seems like she has my number. Whenever I miss a shot, she is letting me hear it, and when she makes hers, I hear that even louder from her.”

McGuire says participating in the class alongside Emily taught him that including people with disabilities is beneficial to everyone. 

“It is for the betterment of the entire class to share these experiences,” he says. “Emily impacted me much more than I could ever impact her. Regardless of how much people in the class learned about basketball, I think we all learned more about life and how to treat others—which is 1,000 times more important.”

That kind of takeaway about the power of empathy and the importance of access is exactly what Garriott hopes for. 

“I can’t help but think that spending a couple hours every week with Emily, watching how hard she tries and how much fun she’s having—all of that really just softens the heart and helps people see how important it is that we build spaces that are inclusive of all different kinds of people,” she says. “We create space for the athletes to feel important and seen, and for our students to help them feel that way.”

Media Contact:
Katie Grieze
Senior Content Manager

Butler’s connections to Special Olympics go beyond the College of Education. Click here to learn about Butler Ambassadors for Special Olympics (BASO), a student organization raising funds for the cause and spreading awareness about the power of inclusion. Then, read the story of one Butler alum who got involved with Special Olympics in just about every way she could.