Over a dozen semesters, my 24-year-old son Andrew spent considerable time at Butler University. Always a guest. Never a student.
Each April he actively participates in Special Olympics events during the annual Spring Sports Spectacular. As a non-student initiate of Sigma Chi Fraternity, he joins me for activities at the Butler chapter. On Tuesdays during the fall and spring, he trains with the Indy Runners organization that meets on campus.
No doubt, Andrew loves his “Butler” time. Yet he wants more. He longs to be a college student.
Although living with an intellectual disability, Andrew dreams of being a teacher. Even as a little boy, he was my one child who constantly played school in the basement. Over the past two years, he finally got a taste – volunteering in kindergarten classrooms in two different public schools.
But his dream seems impossible. With permanent brain damage from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Andrew lacks a high school diploma. That doesn’t mean he can’t learn. He simply goes at his own pace and watches those around him – a visual learner who thrives on hands-on experience. Unfortunately, high-stakes testing over a decade measured what he couldn’t do – rather than what he could do.
In Andrew’s words, “Nothing in life has ever been easy.”
Enter Erin Garriott, College of Education faculty member at Butler University. She’s been intimately involved in bringing Special Olympics Indiana programs to campus – most notably, the two-day, twice-a-year ALPs University (Athlete Leadership Program). This unique program gives Special Olympics athlete leaders a college-like experience and educates them in computer technology, public speaking, coaching and wellness.
Andrew holds both communication and sports degrees. For the past five years, he’s put his knowledge to use – speaking at more than 100 high school respect rallies to 110,000 students through Champions Together, a partnership between Special Olympics Indiana and Indiana High School Athletic Association. He’s also assisted new cross county runners at two local high schools, as well as coaching Special Olympics athletes who’ve followed his success.
At the 2014 USA Games in Princeton, New Jersey, he won three gold medals in the 1500M, 3000M and 5000M. Last year Andrew qualified for the 2019 Boston Marathon.
During a planning meeting on campus in 2016, Erin met Andrew and me. She soon invited him to present to her education class. And that led Erin to persuade Butler officials to include Andrew in PE207, a skills course in track and field – as a pilot program.
Erin would co-teach the course and provide in-class support to Andrew. She would also be there to answer questions – while supporting the professor and the other students as they learn about Andrew’s unique needs.
Andrew would finally be a college student.
With the class composed of 15 students majoring in physical education, exercise science and pre-physical therapy, Erin knew Andrew would fit into the mix. And he did. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Andrew put forth his personal best.
Some class activities came easy like the 3K run. Others, however, were harder – especially those that pushed him to move his body in unfamiliar ways, quickly read class handouts or integrate prior knowledge.
Most importantly, Andrew learned by watching the other students. And they learned by watching him.
After two students naturally gravitated to Andrew during the first couple of class sessions, others eventually gained confidence and followed suit. When Andrew needed assistance with an activity, someone quickly volunteered. In turn, he willingly accepted a lending hand because of the trust established in a safe and supportive environment.
“No one walked by me like I didn’t exist,” says Andrew. “That happened many times in high school but not at Butler. I feel like I belong.”
That was Erin’s goal – not for students to have pity for Andrew but to show respect and be open to learning from him.
“Andrew has so much to teach us (me included) about perseverance and acceptance,” says Erin. “I looked forward to every class. The students were so kind and helpful. This was a good start to a goal of more inclusive experiences on campus for Andrew and other Special Olympic athletes.”
Students also reflected on their experiences and interactions with Andrew.
“Hopefully Andrew gained confidence after spending time with our class. Hopefully he now feels more comfortable interacting with others – and we feel more comfortable interacting with people with disabilities in the future,” says Sydney Shelton.
“I remember at the beginning of the semester, Andrew didn’t talk much. It was hard to have a conversation because he was so quiet,” says Kendal Wilby. “Now we say hi to each other every day and we can talk about class. Thank you for giving me this awesome opportunity to know Andrew and learn more about an under-served population.”
“Andrew repeatedly demonstrated that he understood and retained the curriculum he learned throughout the semester. During most class times, Andrew would speak with me and discuss the skill sets we learned the previous week,” says David Dunham.
Through this class the students became mentors to a person who craves inclusion. They became allies to people with an Intellectual Disability. They saw the power of leading by example, as the professor led an authentic inclusive class.
Everyone’s ideas mattered. Everyone’s potential shined by being affirmed and pushed. Best of all, the students received a valuable lesson that will follow them into their professional careers.
All people have abilities, if someone has an open mind and looks in the right places.
That’s why we don’t just talk about inclusion but encourage real-time experiences centered on inclusion. In this PE course with Andrew, it became a true and lasting lesson. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate