PHILADELPHIA — Sebastian DeSimone was born with “a little bit of autism,” as he tells it.

The 20-year-old, who wants to become a teacher’s assistant, enrolled at Gwynedd Mercy University, a small, private Catholic school in Montgomery County. As part of his collegiate experience, he was determined to run for the Division III school — and last fall he completed his first season on the cross-country team, where he placed third of six on the team at the Atlantic East Conference Championship — not bad for a freshman.

But DeSimone, who is from West Orange, N.J., might not have had the chance to compete if it hadn’t been for his determination and that of his mother, Joanne. NCAA rules generally require athletes to be full-time students in degree-bearing programs. DeSimone is enrolled in Gwynedd Mercy’s Integrated Studies program for students with intellectual disabilities; they earn certificates, not degrees.

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Joanne DeSimone researched the issue and asked Gwynedd Mercy to request a waiver from the NCAA.

“To me, it was almost a slam dunk,” said Keith Mondillo, Gwynedd Mercy’s director of athletics. “You have a student here that’s full time that wants to participate and is able to participate athletically.”

DeSimone got his waiver, and in August, the NCAA’s subcommittee for legislative relief approved a change that will make it easier for students with intellectual disabilities at Gwynedd Mercy (and nationwide) to compete in Division III athletics — if they have the athletic ability. Massillon Myers, an NCAA spokesperson, said the subcommittee decided to take up the issue early last summer after receiving a request from another Division III school to make the process easier.

“Future Integrated Studies students will not need to submit a waiver request to staff,” said Myers.

Under what’s known as a “previously approved waiver,” students with intellectual disabilities will be eligible as long as their programs are approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The programs need to require students to make academic progress toward a goal or outcome and have them enrolled full time. They also need to allow students to participate in clubs and events on campus, according to the new rule.

It all makes Sebastian DeSimone and his mother smile.

“He told me he feels good because he’s helping to change the community,” said DeSimone, who, like her son, wore a Gwynedd Mercy cross-country team sweatshirt during a recent interview on campus.

More than 350 universities nationwide have programs for students with intellectual disabilities. In 2004, there were just 25, according to Think College, a federally funded center that tracks, supports, and advocates for such programs. In Pennsylvania, there are 19, including at Temple, Drexel, Pennsylvania State University, West Chester, Widener, Arcadia, Villanova and St. Joseph’s, according to Think College.

Most of these programs don’t award degrees, although some, like Gwynedd Mercy, offer certificates. Students audit university classes — DeSimone enrolled in five during the fall semester, including education and psychology — and sit with other students and get support from peer mentors and university advisers. At some colleges, like Gwynedd Mercy, they live on campus, like DeSimone, and experience college life.

The new NCAA rule for integrated studies’ students only applies to Division III schools. Among those in Pennsylvania with programs, other than Gwynedd Mercy, are Arcadia and Widener.

Joanne DeSimone said her son liked to run from the time he was a small child, and he was fast.

“He was my flight risk,” she said.

DeSimone said he began running for sport when he was in seventh grade and wanted to make friends outside of his self-contained special education classroom. He joined the team at West Orange High School in Essex County and worked very hard to make varsity, his mother said.

“He said, ‘I want to be with everybody,'” his mother recalled.

He improved his time in the 5K by six minutes from freshman to senior year, when he ran it in 18 minutes, 9 seconds.

“It was beautiful as a parent to watch,” she said. “You see your child struggling academically, and even when they are making gains, it’s not like big kind of gains that they can appreciate themselves. In running, it’s very easy to see. It’s all numbers.”

As he runs, Sebastian DeSimone said he plays music in his head — the B-52’s is one of his favorite groups — and he also enjoys staying fit.

Two summers ago, he participated in a Nike camp for running, led by former Olympian Hazel Clark, and served as a junior coach at the same camp last summer.

“He has an energy and enthusiasm that is unmatched,” said Ariana Amaya, Gwynedd Mercy’s program director of Integrated Studies.

While DeSimone gets modifications for academics, there are none for sports. He made the team on his ability, the athletic director said.

For the DeSimone family, it’s been a journey.

Joanne DeSimone, 55, started her career as a professional dancer and saw some of her early students struggle with ADHD. She wanted to learn more about that and decided to become a special education teacher. She worked in Brooklyn, where she and her husband, John, a film production coordinator, lived.

Then they gave birth to their first son, Benjamin, who has lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation. Many die before the age of 10; Benjamin, who needs help with all daily living activities, is 23.

Three years later, Sebastian was born.

“Talk about the irony,” she said, reflecting on how her career choice then became her parental path.

The family eventually moved to New Jersey, where they found better school options for Sebastian. She became a special education advocate for a New Jersey nonprofit, helping parents of students with disabilities and school districts find private school placements and exercise their rights.

When it was time for her younger son to go to college, DeSimone used her instincts as a parent and her professional knowledge to seek the best placement possible. The two liked Gwynedd Mercy from its first open house, when someone said the school’s mission “was to discover a need and fill it,” she said.

When her son was in high school, DeSimone got an NJSIAA (New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association) waiver for him to participate in a fifth year of running. So she knew waivers were possible.

“I did a deep dive to learn the division rules, and talked to coaches locally that I knew,” she said. “I also hired a consultant who specialized in eligibility.”

She gave everything she learned to Gwynedd Mercy.

“Our campus was very much not if, but how — how can we make this happen?” said Amaya, the Integrated Studies director.

© 2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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