2017 Special Olympics

Special Olympics: Lessons in Developing Inclusive Leaders 

East Asia and Asia Pacific Leader I Participants in Shanghai China
East Asia and Asia Pacific Leader I
Participants in Shanghai, China

ILA Member Spotlight - Special Olympics

Denis Doolan

Denis Doolan is Chief of Organizational Excellence at Special Olympics International. He is responsible for operational development of the world’s largest organization working with people with intellectual disabilities in over 170 countries. Denis is the founder of the Special Olympics Leadership Academy. He has over 20 years’ experience working globally. His work has ranged from strategic management in the not-for-profit and event sectors to leadership training and development services in the corporate and public sectors. Email: ddoolan@specialolympics.org

Olga Yakimakho

Olga Yakimakho is Senior Manager for Organizational Excellence responsible for running the Special Olympics Leadership Academy and providing professional development opportunities to the movement’s leaders globally. In the past 16 years, Olga has worked in over 20 countries with several large international NGOs. Her areas of expertise include training, facilitation, leadership development and organizational capacity strengthening for international non-profits in governance, civil society, technology, health, and environment sectors. Email: oyakimakho@specialolympics.org

The Untapped Leadership Potential of People with Intellectual Disabilities

Special Olympics is the world’s largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with intellectual disabilities (ID). As we prepare to celebrate the movement’s 50th anniversary in 2018, the need to help the world be more inclusive is as urgent as ever. Special Olympics is well-known for sports, but we are less known for promoting social change and the rights of people with ID off the playing field.

One initiative, for example, is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Special Olympics Unified Sports® joins people with and without ID on the same team. Evidence shows that the relationships formed via Unified Sports change attitudes, break down stereotypes, and form the basis for long-term friendships. An analysis of data on Unified Sports in U.S. schools found that 79% of Unified Sports partners (people without disabilities) reported talking to a student with ID during free time at school and 41% reported eating lunch with a student with ID. They also held positive beliefs about classroom inclusion for students with disabilities.

Similarly, the Special Olympics Athlete Leadership program provides training and leadership opportunities for people with ID that empowers them to show their leadership strengths both inside and outside Special Olympics.

Athlete leadership is at the heart of our strategic goals. To meet these goals, all leaders of the movement — people with and without ID — need effective, inclusive leadership skills and tools. “Follow the athletes, follow their leadership” — easier said than done? We have some practices to show that it’s possible with a little bit of focus and investment.

Latin America Leader I participants in Mexico
Latin America Leader I
Participants in Mexico

Disability and Inclusive Leadership

To understand the foundation of leadership for disability and inclusion, it is important to understand the underpinnings of disability theory. Mike Oliver conceptualized models of disability as “the binary distinction between what I chose to call the individual and social models of disability” (Oliver, 1983). Simply put, the individual model looks at disability negatively as a tragedy and something that needs to be treated and helped — locating the problem within the individual with a disability. In the social model, disability is treated as a social construct, putting responsibility on society to create conditions where individuals with a disability exercise exactly the same rights as anyone else. Creating such a society is a great challenge for the leaders of today, which is why we have adapted leadership training in Special Olympics to work towards social model thinking. Wolfensberger’s Social Role Valorization (SRV) theory, has also provided a helpful theoretical contribution to our understanding of how society often devalues people with disabilities and prescribes a narrow range of roles and opportunities for them (Wolfensberger, W., 1983).

A model that has informed our thinking and practice of leadership development at Special Olympics is one that emerged from research at Deloitte by Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillon. Key competencies of inclusive leadership as follows:

  1. Cognizance of bias
  2. Curiosity
  3. Cultural intelligence
  4. Collaboration
  5. Commitment
  6. Courage

Many models of leadership competencies will include one or more of the skills from this list. Others will appropriately place one or more within other categories of skills such as emotional intelligence, social skills, building relationships, etc. The benefit of the Deloitte model, however, is that it enables a leader to keep laser focused on inclusion.

Special Olympics Leadership Academy

Katie BothaThe Special Olympics Leadership Academy is an internal executive development program, designed to support and grow our leaders. An exciting feature of the Leadership Academy is that it brings together leaders with and without intellectual disabilities to learn together as peers in a safe environment and without the limitations of traditional organizational hierarchy. Katie Botha, Vice President of Development & Communications at Special Olympics Virginia, USA, commented, “I find myself continually referencing the athlete leaders that I met through the Academy. I’ve never had the opportunity to train alongside athlete peers before this opportunity. It was such an important and transformative part of my Academy experience.”

Since it began in December of 2014, 237 leaders in Special Olympics, including 16 athlete leaders, have participated in the Academy. The workshops have taken place in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe/Eurasia, and North America and included participants from 85 countries.

In order to offer the best contemporary leadership content, we engage external partners in workshop design and delivery. We have received incredible support, materials, and facilitation from CEB/Gartner, Goldman Sachs, Lions Clubs International, American Express Foundation, and SkillSoft. Many other for-profit and non-profit organizations have contributed guest speakers, ensuring high levels of professionalism and quality in both content and delivery.

The Academy offers two consecutive modules, Leader I and Leader II. Both modules consist of a face-to-face workshop, action planning for a year following the workshop, an interim, and a final report at the end of the year. Leader I focuses on leadership growth, network leadership, team leadership, successful planning, and execution. Leader II helps develop skills via enterprise leadership, change management, and effective communication. Because of regional diversity, each module is customized to the needs of each Academy cohort.

Asia Pacific Leader II participants in Gurgaon, India
Asia Pacific Leader II
Participants in Gurgaon, India

Both Leader I and Leader II offer inclusive leadership sessions that combine theory of inclusion with group discussion of what they can do to support inclusion in their workplace and community. These sessions have been designed and facilitated in close collaboration with global inclusion leaders, including Ambassador Luis Gallegos (Senior Fellow at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research), William P. Alford and Michael Ashley Stein, (Co-founders of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability), and Cui Fengming, (Director of the China Program at the Harvard Law School Project on Disability).

Every face-to-face workshop design is guided by the principles of adult learning: adult motivation, responsibility, experience, need-based readiness, and task orientation (Knowles, 1984). Throughout the workshop participants answer challenging and urgent questions about the Special Olympics movement and their role in it, solidifying the sense of responsibility and need for growth. All sessions integrate practical application exercises that utilize leaders’ experience and prior knowledge. Action planning throughout the workshop translates learning into work plans and tasks. Post-workshop follow up, mentoring, online learning and reporting provide continuous opportunities to practice new skills and behaviors. Over 80% of workshop participants complete the follow-up requirements and receive a graduation certificate.

Inclusive Design and Methodology

A decision to bring together leaders with and without intellectual disability from many countries around the world and who speak various languages required innovation and creativity, and we did not get it right immediately. While the Academy is still a work in progress, we have learned several lessons that are helping all leaders — with and without ID — become better.

  • Make the instructional materials — workbooks and presentations — user-friendly by utilizing the seven principles of Universal Design. Following these principles ensures that the materials are more useful and the ideas are easier to implement:
    • Principle 1: Equitable Use
    • Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
    • Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use
    • Principle 4: Perceptible Information
    • Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
    • Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
    • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use
  • Participants with ID perform much better in a workshop if they receive the materials in advance along with a brief introduction to concepts and exercises. Instead of being concerned about keeping up, they come to the workshop prepared to engage in discussions.
  • Balancing the trainer’s pace is important to keep everyone engaged. This applies to mixed ability groups and multi-lingual environments. When some trainees learn more quickly, they are best utilized as coaches so they can practice tolerance and sensitivity to the needs of others.
  • Group design for small group exercises is important. Integrating participants with ID as equals and avoiding patronizing behaviors increases their exposure and confidence. On the other hand, they still require one-on-one support with material. Engaging participants without ID as coaches helps solve material comprehension, builds teamwork skills, and emphasizes the need always to be aware of the differences between learners.
  • Building in enough time and space for reflection is crucial to the success of any leadership program — in an inclusive program, reflection may require even longer periods of time. In the Special Olympics Leadership Academy, we organize one-on-one coaching sessions with every participant with and without ID throughout the workshop.
  • All participants, regardless of their ability, have a limit on the amount of information they are able to absorb in a day. It is much more productive to integrate fewer content pieces in a day, with more content heavy mornings and more discussion-based afternoons. Guest speakers, World Café, panels, and interviews are all good options for productive afternoon sessions.

Impact of Leadership Development

Asia Pacific Leader II Participants in Gurgaon, India
Asia Pacific Leader II
Participants in Gurgaon, India

As the momentum and demand for the Academy continues to grow, Special Olympics took time to pause and reflect on the Leadership Academy, its methodology, and initial results. The evaluation strategy was based upon Kirkpatrick’s model of training evaluation (Kirkpatrick, 2006). We were particularly interested in Levels 3 (application) and 4 (change in programs). The information below is taken from the full evaluation report, available here.

The evaluation team found evidence that the Leadership Academy is showing results in the four areas: A new leadership mindset; new opportunities for athletes, families, and communities; enhanced teamwork and program performance; and expanded national and state programs.

A New Leadership Mindset

The most striking results are participants’ great inspiration by Special Olympics’ investment in them and clarity in their role as catalytic leaders of the movement. One of the greatest impacts is on the confidence of participants. After the Academy, they were better able think of themselves as a leader and had a deeper understanding of their role in the Special Olympics movement.

The workshop material has left an imprint on the mindsets of the participants. This has involved creating a motivating work environment for their teammates and relieving pressure caused by multiple priorities and heavy workload. Leaders report gaining a greater sense of responsibility for time management, priority setting, and developing the skills and talents of others.

Kiera BylandI have learnt more being here than I would have done at college. I feel inspired to become an athlete leader.– Kiera Byland, Athlete Leader, Special Olympics Great Britain, Leader II Participant

Brightfield ShadiThe Academy has raised my self-confidence and esteem as I realize the importance of my work for the athletes, coaches, the Head office and the community I live it. – Brightfield Shadi, Athlete Leader and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, Special Olympics Botswana pictured receiving his Leader I graduation certificate.

New Opportunities for Athletes, Families, and Communities

The ultimate result of inclusive programming should, of course, be to better support athletes through their participation in sports and leadership work. One of the broader impacts of the Academy has been development of inclusive leadership mindsets, where participants of the Academy recognize that athletes should be active participants in the advancement of Special Olympics in their communities.

Some examples of the post-Academy work demonstrating inclusive leadership include:

  • New projects are being established and mainstreamed into schools;
  • Leaders have changed the way they engage athletes and other key stakeholders;
  • Athletes have been engaged in Program leadership and in negotiation with donors.

After the Academy, I give my staff freedom to organize the process as they think best. George, a 38-year-old athlete who did not walk until he was age nine, is very interested in becoming an assistant coach. He works really hard and has great ideas. In looking for money to prepare athletes for the Austria World Games, George independently found contacts at the Mayor’s office. George and the team went to the officials and they asked for a proposal. We got funding for seven days of training. This all came from letting others — especially athletes — take initiative, not just me. – Zhana Gotsireli, Georgia Country Director, Leader II Participant

Enhanced Teamwork and Program Performance

Europe and Eurasia Leader II Participants at Heydar Aliyev Museum in Baku, Azerbaijan
Europe and Eurasia Leader II
Participants at Heydar Aliyev Museum in
 Baku, Azerbaijan

A very strong theme emerging from the final reports, the online survey, and the in-depth interviews is the changes that participants have initiated within their offices. A better understanding of the importance of dialogue with staff and how to build a team has translated into more harmonious, empowered, and effective teams.

National or State Special Olympics Program Board development is also a focus of improvement for many, either through clarifying roles and visibility, recruiting new members, or in one case, lowering the number of board members.

Expanded National and State Programs

While the majority of one-year reports on the results of the action plans are still under implementation, there are numerous impressive results that can be noted from just three Academy groups. Examples from countries or states in the Asia Pacific, Europe/Eurasia, or North America regions include:

  • Estimated 20% more income over previous year
  • Recruited 500 new members (athletes, families, volunteers) in a single day
  • Registered 1376 new athletes, 624 new family members and 173 new coaches
  • More than 200 employees from leading corporations helped during National Games
  • Increased volunteer numbers by 70% over previous year
  • Recruited 12 new high profile ambassadors
  • Nine athletes became inspiration coaches
  • Raised over $13,000 to train athletes for World Winter Games in Austria and received access to snowboarding training in a tropical country
  • Two nationwide TV channels covered Special Olympics events for free
  • Raised five new managers and received additional management responsibilities in three new states
  • 55% increase in website visits; brand awareness increased 2 points (external survey)
  • New funding of €5000 to increase athlete training to 3 session a week
  • Created a licensed product to be purchased in Duty Free Shops, with profits going to program.

It is evident that through completing their action plans, participants are contributing significantly to the growth of their national or state programs. For example, they have attracted new corporate partnerships, increased publicity and brand awareness, and established new funding mechanisms and strategies.

Challenges and Solutions

As with any non-profit, funds for internal capacity development are a challenge. We found the solution to this issue through working with partners. The Special Olympics Leadership Academy was founded with the help of crucial investment from American Express Foundation, one of the few organizations that has a dedicated funding stream to fund leadership development in non-profits. This is a huge challenge that needs to be addressed. For example, a 2014 McKinsey study found that “chronic underinvestment in leadership development within the U.S. social sector, accompanied by 25 percent growth in the number of nonprofit organizations in the past decade, has opened a gap between demands on leaders and their ability to meet those needs” (Callanan, Gardner, Mendonca, & Scott, 2014).

Another challenge is that many of our leaders are volunteers. We address this by engaging multiple people in Academy preparation to ensure that the content is relevant, the timing works for most, and follow-up is not too time consuming.

Future Steps

The evaluation yielded a number of recommendations that will ensure the Leadership Academy continues to grow and evolve over the next few years.

Perhaps the most exciting development we envisage is to provide more continuous learning opportunities for Special Olympics leaders through technology. Our aim is to move from focusing on face-to-face workshops to a blended model, where leaders take advantage of peer-to-peer, online, and group learning opportunities.

Beyond the evaluation recommendations, we see other opportunities to further the world’s understanding of inclusive leadership. To begin with, we plan to explore utilizing people with intellectual disabilities as trainers in our leadership development programs, such as the Athlete Leadership program and the Leadership Academy.

We also want to partner with a university to strengthen our leadership development programming, research inclusive leadership, and engage people with intellectual disabilities through, for example, speaking opportunities.

As we take these steps into the future, we are well aware that there is a lot we don’t know. Our aim is to continue learning through practice and research, and we look forward to hearing from others and engaging in a dialogue on how we can build on what we have done, not only to advance Special Olympics, but also to contribute to a better understanding of what it means to be a truly inclusive leader.

Tim Shriver, Michelle Obama, and Special Olympic athlete leaders accept 2017 ESPY on behalf of Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Tim Shriver, Michelle Obama, and Special Olympic athlete leaders accept 2017 ESPY on behalf of Eunice Kennedy Shriver


Last month, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was posthumously honored with the Ashe Courage Award at the 25th annual ESPYS ceremony. As Mrs. Shriver would have noted, this award was not about her but about the courage and leadership of the people she stood behind when she founded the Special Olympics movements — our athletes. The award was presented by Michelle Obama to Mrs. Shriver’s son and Special Olympics Board Chair Tim Shriver, who were joined on the stage by eight amazing leaders of our movement.

Among them was Loretta Claiborne, a celebrated Special Olympic athlete, who received the Ashe Courage Award in 1996 and whose incredible journey inspired a Disney movie. Today Loretta Claiborne is Chief Inspiration Officer at Special Olympics. Her aim is to develop a strong legacy by developing people with intellectual disabilities to lead the way to true inclusion in their communities.

The Special Olympics athletes at the ESPYS were honored not only for their sport achievements but also for their grit, leadership, and vision for a world without barriers. As Tim Shriver said in his inspirational acceptance speech, “We have a lot of work to do for equality, for the more than 200 million people with intellectual disabilities… they are powerful human beings with a message, they can unify our schools and communities… This is their time… follow the athletes, follow their leadership. When in doubt, choose to include!”


Callanan, L., Gardner, N., Mendonca, L., & Scott, D. (November 2014). What Social-Sector Leaders Need to Succeed. Retrieved from http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/what-social-sector-leaders-need-to-succeed.

Kirkpatrick, D.L., & Kirkpatrick, J.D. (2006). Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels (3rd Edition). Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Knowles, M. S., et al. (1984). Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Oliver, M. (1983). Social Work With Disabled People. London: Macmillan.

Wolfensberger, W. (1983). Social Role Valorization: A Proposed New Term for the Principle of Normalization. Mental Retardation, 21, 234–239.

Special Olympics LogoSpecial Olympics Mission Statement

To provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

About ILA's Member Spotlight

Whether starting new leadership programs or researching thorny questions, nurturing young leaders or coaching established CEOs, leading innovative workshops or working as change-agents in their communities, ILA members are making a difference around the world. Share your organization’s story in our member spotlight. Contact Debra DeRuyver at dderuyver@ila-net.org for details.