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New Faculty Research Spotlight

Lindsey Oakes, Department of Health and Human Performance

Passion for Social Inclusion Drives Professor’s Research on Student Health and Wellness


"With funding from Special Olympics, Inc. and the U.S. Department of Education, our research team set out to increase inclusion on college and university campuses with IPSE programs."

 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, taken prior to March 2020 (pre-COVID)
Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools,
taken prior to March 2020 (pre-COVID)

Dr. Lindsey Oakes
Dr. Lindsey Oakes

After interviewing for several faculty positions across the country during a national pandemic, I chose Texas State University for my very first faculty appointment. In May 2020, I completed a doctoral program in the Department of Public Health Education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and I now serve as a tenure-track, Assistant Professor of Therapeutic Recreation in the Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP). What drew me to Texas State was the supportive and interdisciplinary atmosphere of the department. I also felt my research interests would fit nicely and compliment other research endeavors within HHP.

My research has explored health and wellness experiences of students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD) at universities and colleges with inclusive postsecondary education (IPSE) programs across the country. IPSE programs endeavor to create, expand, and/or enhance high-quality, inclusive higher education experiences to support positive and holistic outcomes for individuals with IDD. Currently, I focus on best practices of therapeutic recreation service delivery for college students with IDD in IPSE programs, with the long-term goal of establishing the college setting as a new worksite for certified therapeutic recreation specialists (CTRS). With my background in public health, I am interested in the potential impact CTRS can make at various levels of the socio-ecological model. I have served as Program Coordinator for InFocus Advocacy®, an organization that works with self-advocates, families, and community partners to enhance the image of people living with a disability, since the organization's inception. My passion for social inclusion for all is reflected through my day-to-day work and research endeavors.

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, photos taken prior to March 2020 (pre-COVID)
Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools,
taken prior to March 2020 (pre-COVID)

The number of college students with IDD in the United States is growing; ten years ago, there were only 160 college campuses with inclusive postsecondary education (IPSE) programs for students with IDD, and now there are more than 300.  The growth of IPSE programs nationwide has resulted in significantly more students with IDD on U.S. college campuses. 

Despite the increasing number of IPSE programs, research on the inclusion of students with IDD in campus recreation and sports is limited. In the last 10 years, only eight papers have been published explicitly investigating this topic. One study found that opportunities for physical activity, campus recreation, and intramural participation were areas of importance and potential improvement regarding inclusion. Specifically, results revealed that college students with IDD were not included within all types of campus recreation and sports and that these students felt unfulfilled. 

Universities can serve students with IDD more purposefully by creating partnerships with local and national organizations. Special Olympics is an organization that provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with IDD. One of the more effective vehicles for promoting social inclusion is Special Olympics Unified Sports®, which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. In recent years, as part of its Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools®, Unified Sports programming has developed on college and university campuses across the United States, including colleges and universities in the state of Texas.

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools, photos taken prior to March 2020 (pre-COVID)
Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools,
taken prior to March 2020 (pre-COVID)

With funding from Special Olympics, Inc. and the U.S. Department of Education, our research team set out to increase inclusion on college and university campuses with IPSE programs. We examined experiences of campus recreation and sports departments, students with and without IDD, and staff serving these students inside and outside the context of Unified Sports. We also investigated how the presence of Unified Sports impacts inclusion attitudes of campus recreation and sports staff and students without IDD. Ultimately, findings from this study provide a better understanding of students with and without IDD, campus recreation and sports staff, and organizational partnerships for the purpose of increasing inclusion. 

This research has broader impacts for practice and future research. When campus recreation and sports opportunities include Unified Sports, regardless of whether programming is affiliated with a Special Olympics College Club or the larger university, the attitudes of campus recreation and sports staff and students without IDD towards students with IDD are more positive. This suggests that in this sample, Unified Sports is having a positive impact on campus. Although this study included only three institutions, it is likely that these same effects are occurring on other campuses where Unified Sports are implemented.

Our study, along with previous similar studies, has supported and led to the pursuit of grant funding for a larger research study. In April 2021, I re-submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch, along with a PI and Co-PI from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Our proposed project, “Developing an Inclusive Culture within Campus Sport and Recreation for College Students with IDD,” seeks to work with college students with IDD as co-researchers to develop and test the feasibility and efficacy of web-based inclusion training for campus recreation and sports staff at universities and colleges across the United States. College students with and without IDD will benefit by having opportunities to meaningfully participate in inclusive recreation and sports, which will then affect physical, social, and mental health outcomes of students with IDD, as well as positive outcomes for college students without IDD. Furthermore, college students with IDD will have the opportunity to achieve their full potential to lead healthy and productive lives.