Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through one-to-one friendships with individuals without disabilities. A cross-sectional survey was conducted with Best Buddies College Program participants located within the United States. Survey findings suggest that college students and people with intellectual disabilities benefited from participation in Best Buddies. The vast majority of college students and people with intellectual disabilities reported enjoying their experience and engaging in friendship activities that were mutually beneficial to those involved. Most people with intellectual disabilities also indicated their lives had been enhanced as a result of Best Buddies, although the percentage was lower than that of college students.
With the increasing emphasis on inclusion in school and community settings, researchers are focusing more on relationships among people with and without intellectual disabilities. As suggested by McDonnell, Hardman, and McDonnell (2003), “it is through these one-to-one friendships that we see the long-term changes in behavior that promote the acceptance of differences, and move us closer to an inclusive society” (p. 61). Existing research has clearly demonstrated the importance of friendships in enhancing self-esteem and quality of life (Barber & Hupp, 1993; Pottie & Sumarah, 2004; Siperstein, Leffert, & Wenz-Gross, 1997). However, a more in-depth analysis of friendships among people with and without intellectual disabilities reveals differing perspectives in regard to the type and nature of these relationships.
Several authors suggest that although people without disabilities may see a friend as someone who shares common interests, those with intellectual disabilities often view a friend as a companion or someone who can take them places (Kemp & Carter, 2002; Kolb & Hanley-Maxwell, 2003; Siperstein et al., 1997). Siperstein et al. reported that a person with intellectual disabilities is often the follower in a relationship with a peer who does not have a disability. Peers without disabilities take the lead in most situations and assist the person with disabilities in learning new skills. Thus, the relationship is not reciprocal but more one-sided. However, in a qualitative study on friendships among individuals with and those without developmental disabilities, Pottie and Sumarah (2004) found that it was people with disabilities who engaged in what could be described as “friendship maintenance behaviors” (p. 64). They often initiated the telephone calls or dinner invitations, remembered important occasions, or sought assistance when needed.
Green, Schleien, Mactavish, and Benepe (1995) pointed out that an effective way to establish friendships that are reciprocal and mutually beneficial among people with and without intellectual disabilities is to provide opportunities to engage in community recreational and leisure experiences. In doing so, there is a greater likelihood that individuals without disabilities will begin to focus on similarities and common interests rather than the stark differences (Bak & Siperstein, 1987). At the same time, those with intellectual disabilities have the opportunity to enhance their socialization skills through increased participation in activities that are interesting and beneficial. This view is consistent with a survey of parents of children with disabilities (Hamre-Nietupski, Nietupski, & Strathe, 1992), who indicated that they wanted educators to move beyond the prevailing skills training approach to a greater emphasis on friendship-building as a means to support their son or daughter's inclusion in school and community life. Hamre-Nietupski et al. found that friendship/social relationship development was considered by parents to be equal in importance to the learning of functional skills and was significantly more important than learning academic content.
The Best Buddies College Program is one of four friendship programs (College, High School, Middle School, and Citizens) offered through Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Anthony Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy and R. Sargent Shriver. The College Program provides opportunities for one-to-one friendships between a person with intellectual disabilities (referred to as a Buddy) and a college student without disabilities (referred to as a College Buddy). Best Buddies friendship programs are currently located in 377 colleges/universities within the United States and in 12 other countries around the world. Every participating college or university has a Best Buddies chapter, which is a registered student organization led by a College Buddy director, a student who organizes, leads, and maintains a chartered Best Buddies chapter for the duration of one academic year. People with intellectual disabilities are recruited for participation in the program through local developmental disability agencies, parent organizations (e.g., The ARC), and word-of-mouth. College students are recruited through on-campus student organizations, service learning centers, university/college faculty, as well as word-of-mouth.
College students interested in participating in Best Buddies must submit an application to their respective campus chapters. Each college student is matched with a person with an intellectual disability on the basis of common interests and personality as reported on his or her application matching survey as well as individual interviews with the College Buddy director and a host-site coordinator. Prior to being accepted into the program, college student applicants must commit to the following for one academic year: (a) making contact with a Buddy (person with an intellectual disability) on a weekly basis, which may include anything from a call to a letter/postcard/e-mail or one-to-one face time together, (b) two to three one-to-one outings per month, and (c) becoming a contributing member of the Best Buddies college chapter by attending the chapter meetings and group outings (Best Buddies, 2004).
Our purpose here was to examine a “snapshot” of the characteristics and perspectives of college students and people with intellectual disabilities who participated in the Best Buddies College Friendship Program in 2001, 2002, and 2003. We used two cross-sectional survey instruments (McMillan, 2004) to obtain the following information: (a) a demographic profile of program participants, including age, gender, and ethnicity; (b) frequency of contact among college students and individuals with intellectual disabilities during participation in the program; (c) the various types of friendship activities within the program; (d) participant views on overall satisfaction with the program; (d) college students reported attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities; and (e) the views of people with intellectual disabilities regarding the impact of the program on their lives.
College Buddy and Buddy questionnaires were originally developed in 1997, and pilot data were collected from 1,169 Best Buddies college program participants during a 3-year period. Questions were analyzed in terms of their clarity, redundancy, reading level, and completion time (Drew, Hardman, & Hart, 1996). Based on pilot data, we developed a 25-item College Buddy questionnaire and 19-item Buddy questionnaire for this study. The College Buddy survey consisted of five parts: 8 questions on demographic information; three on frequency of contact; 2 on the types of activities engaged in through Best Buddies; 3 on satisfaction with the program; and 9 on attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities. The Buddy survey also consisted of five parts: six questions on demographic information; three on frequency of contact; two on the types of activities engaged in through Best Buddies; three on satisfaction with the program; and five on Best Buddies impact on the lives of the participants. The survey questions for both instruments varied in response mode. Respondents circled their answer(s) from a list of multiple-choice options for the demographic, frequency of contact, and types of activities questions. Likert-scaled items were used for the questions on participant satisfaction, attitudes, and impact. The scale consisted of three points: 1 (I agree with the statement), 2 (I am neutral, have no opinion on the statement), and 3 (I disagree with the statement).
Survey respondents included (a) 1,222 College Buddies who were members of an accredited college chapter and (b) 1,145 people with intellectual disabilities (Buddies). The participant pool was a convenience sample drawn from 140 college chapters in 16 states. It is important to note that 3 states (California, Florida, and Texas) accounted for 54% of the completed surveys. These state programs have been in existence the longest and constitute the majority of Best Buddies college chapters in the United States. Although 3 states accounted for the majority of completed surveys, participating college chapters in all 16 states had an average of 12 one-to-one friendship matches between people with and those without intellectual disabilities, and they were located in a variety of urban and suburban settings. Participating states and corresponding numbers of the 2,367 completed surveys are shown in Table 1.
On average, College Buddies and Buddies participating in this survey were 20 and 32 years of age, respectively. Eight of 10 College Buddies were female; the gender for the Buddies was 51% female and 48% male. The majority of college students and their Buddies were White, with varying participation rates among individuals from other ethnic backgrounds (see Table 2). Buddies were, on average, 10 years older than their college student counterparts, although there was a wide age-range among the participants with intellectual disabilities. Whereas more than 80% of the college student participants were female, the gender for the Buddies was more equally divided. This resulted in “mixed” gender and age friendships for many of the participants. Although such friendships run counter to the norm for adolescents and young adults without disabilities, they are consistent with the nature of friendships for people with intellectual disabilities (Siperstein et al., 1997). For example, Martin and Smith (2002) suggested that females often experience a higher level of friendship with individuals who have disabilities than do males. In addition, as suggested by Kemp and Carter (2002), it is unlikely that the age difference would be an issue for people with intellectual disabilities given their focus on finding a companion to spend time with, and both members of the dyad are most often in their adult years.
Best Buddies college chapters in the various states were selected for participation based on several criteria: (a) good standing as an accredited Best Buddies chapter, (b) Best Buddies staff were hired and in place, (c) completion of a specified number of successful matches during the current year based upon size of the chapter membership, and (d) availability of the necessary human and material resources to distribute the questionnaires to participants.
Survey instruments were mailed to each of the participating Best Buddies state directors with instructions and timelines for distribution to their college chapter directors, who received instructions and specific numbers of surveys based on their most recent chapter membership roster. The roster included both College Buddies and Buddies. Distribution and completion of surveys was a two-step process. Best Buddies chapter directors distributed surveys to college program participants during chapter meetings and group activities. Each survey was completed anonymously and returned to the chapter director in an individually sealed envelope. For program participants who preferred to complete the questionnaire via the mail, individual questionnaires were sent out, completed, and returned to the chapter in an individually-sealed envelope. Buddy surveys were completed independently by a person with intellectual disabilities to the extent possible consistent with his or her ability to read each question. If an individual with intellectual disabilities requested to have the survey questions read orally and/or could only respond orally, a family member or service provider (e.g., direct care staff) was allowed to assist.
Frequencies of the number of respondents who circled their choice(s) for each of the demographic, frequency of contact, and types of activity questions were tallied and converted to percentages. Likert-scaled questions were tallied by frequencies of the number of respondents who chose one of the three options (agree, neutral, or disagree). These frequencies were also converted to percentages.
Results and Discussion
Frequency of Contact
Best Buddies requires that participating college students (a) make contact with their Buddy on a weekly basis, (b) participate in two or three one-to-one activities each month, and (c) attend chapter and group outings for a minimum of one academic year. As can be seen in Table 3, results indicate that the College Buddies fell short of the established standard for making contact with their Buddies on a weekly basis; only 1 of 3 College Buddies reported speaking with their Buddy at least one a week, and about half reported contact at least once a month. The Buddies reported even less contact, with less than 15% indicating they spoke with their College Buddy at least once a week. In regard to one-to-one outings, fewer than 50% of the College Buddies and Buddies reported participating in such activities at least once a month (see Table 3).
The results also suggest that College Buddies are not meeting the Best Buddies standard of participating in two or three one-to-one outings on a monthly basis. Only one of three College Buddies and Buddies participated in group activities on a monthly basis. The above findings are consistent with concerns raised by the Buddies regarding frequency of contact. Nearly half of the Buddies (49%) reported that they had problems seeing their College Buddy on a regular basis (discussed later). It is important to note, however, that although the frequency of contact was far below the Best Buddies standard, and there were significant concerns raised by the Buddies, 78% of the College Buddies and 71% of the Buddies did participate in either a one-to-one activity or a planned group activity on a monthly basis.
Types of Activities
Two types of activities were identified by the respondents: friendship and teaching. Friendship activities ranged from community participation (i.e., going to a movie, eating at a restaurant, attending a sporting event, hanging out at the local mall, playing sports, or enjoying outdoor recreation) to staying at home, for example, talking on the phone, watching a video, or sharing a meal (see Table 3).
Siperstein et al. (1997) described friendship as “a bilateral and particular construct, indicating the presence of a reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship” (p. 112). Each individual is given an opportunity to take turns, share decisions, and be mutually responsive to the other person. To ensure reciprocity within the relationship, Best Buddies staff members worked closely with College Buddies and Buddies to ensure that selected activities were mutually agreeable. It was not surprising that 3 of 4 College Buddies and Buddies reported that phone conversations were a regular part of the friendship experience given that such contact is often used to plan other activities.
College Buddies also reported engaging in teaching activities with the Buddies while in the program. As can be seen in Table 3, the most frequently mentioned teaching activity was social skills training, followed by instruction in transportation, job skills, and personal finance. Although teaching could be construed as violating the reciprocity and mutuality aspects of a friendship, it is clearly consistent with the research on friendships among people with and those without intellectual disabilities. As suggested by Siperstein et al. (1997), people without disabilities often take the lead and help the person with intellectual disabilities learn new skills.
Overall Reported Satisfaction With the Program
Eight of 10 College Buddies and Buddies reported they enjoyed their experiences with Best Buddies and would do it again. As can be seen in Table 4, nearly all of College Buddies and most of the Buddies would recommend the program to others. There was a discrepancy in survey results between College Buddies and Buddies as to whether the friendship had enhanced their lives. Although more than 8 of 10 College Buddies reported that their lives had been enhanced by the friendship, fewer of the Buddies felt the same way (see Table 4). The fact that 37% of the Buddies reported the friendship had not enhanced their lives is consistent with other findings within the survey. Buddies consistently expressed concerns regarding frequency of contact as well as problems seeing their College Buddy on a regular basis.
College Students Reported Attitudes Toward People With Intellectual Disabilities
One measure of the success of Best Buddies in accomplishing its mission is that 8 of 10 college students, as a result of participation in the program, reported they had a more positive attitude about people with intellectual disabilities and a better understanding of the challenges they face. The vast majority of college students indicated that they would support people with intellectual disabilities living in their neighborhood and that had become more aware of the ability of these individuals to hold a job in a community setting. Similarly, 77% of college students indicated they would be supportive of their son or daughter attending the same school as a child with intellectual disabilities (see Table 4.)
Reported Impact of Best Buddies on the Lives of People With Intellectual Disabilities
People with intellectual disabilities appeared to be somewhat less enthusiastic than the college students regarding the overall impact of Best Buddies on their lives. As can be seen in Table 5, less than half reported that as a result of Best Buddies they were more comfortable participating in social settings within the community and in speaking up for themselves. These findings were not surprising given that nearly 7 of 10 Buddies (74%) indicated they had been friends with a person without disabilities prior to participating in the program. Given there had been prior opportunities for friendships among the vast majority of the Buddies, the fact that nearly half of respondents reported being more comfortable in community settings as a result of participation in Best Buddies is a significant finding.
Implications for Future Research
The present study was limited by factors associated with survey research (e.g., lack of a control group) as well as the use of a convenience sample based on availability of respondents within a given college chapter and the differing levels of support provided to people with intellectual disabilities completing the survey protocol. Future researchers examining the Best Buddies College Program will need to take these factors into account and move beyond the written survey to individual interviews and observations of the friendship dyads.
Given that the study was a one-time snapshot of participant perspectives, future researchers need to address the impact of the Best Buddies friendships over time. Are the friendships long-lasting or time-limited? Once the college student is no longer a part of Best Buddies, does the friendship continue? If so, what is the nature of the friendship in terms of type and frequency of contact? What is the impact on the person with intellectual disabilities if the relationship is time-limited as determined by the college student's participation in Best Buddies?
Additional research is also needed to determine the nature or “level” of the Best Buddies relationship, as described by Barber and Hupp (1993). Does participation in Best Buddies result in best friend, casual friend, acquaintance, or service provider relationships? How do the Best Buddies friendships differ in quality as compared to relationships with other friends with and without disabilities? Are these friendships reciprocal in nature, and do they mutually benefit both parties? If so, how? Does participation in Best Buddies facilitate the development of other friendships for people with intellectual disabilities outside of the program? What role does participation in Best Buddies play in the development of social and adaptive skills for the individual with intellectual disabilities in school and community settings?
Best Buddies is the only organization within the United States and around the world focused exclusively on enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through one-to-one friendships with people who do not have disabilities. Findings from this study strongly suggest that college students and people with intellectual disabilities benefit from participation in the College Best Buddies Program. Eight of 10 college students and people with intellectual disabilities enjoyed their experience. Participants engaged in a variety of friendship activities within the community and in their homes that were mutually beneficial to those involved. Three of 4 college students reported participating in one-to-one or group friendship activities at least once a month.
The vast majority of college students reported that participation in the program enhanced their lives and resulted in a positive change in attitude about the capabilities of people with intellectual disabilities. Most people with intellectual disabilities also indicated that their lives had been enhanced as a result of Best Buddies, although the percentage was lower than that of college students. Although 8 of 10 people with intellectual disabilities would recommend the program to others, a significant percentage reported having problems seeing their college friend on a regular basis.
Authors: Michael L. Hardman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org), Professor and Chair, and Christine Clark, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Special Education, 1705 E. Campus Center Dr., Rm. 221, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112