Bethel University Breaks Down Barriers for Student Athletes with Intellectual Disabilities

The work of Bethel coaches, BUILD leaders, and students has led to big changes across NCAA sports. The NCAA has granted eligibility for all students attending an NCAA Division III comprehensive transition program like BUILD to compete as traditional undergraduate athletes.

By Katie Johnson '19, content specialist

November 08, 2022 | 9:15 a.m.

Dylan Delaske BUILD'23 at the the University of Wisconsin—River Falls Invite on April 4, 2022 | Photo credit: Teresa Brubaker

Dylan Delaske BUILD'23 at the the University of Wisconsin—River Falls Invite on April 4, 2022 | Photo credit: Teresa Brubaker

Dylan Delaske BUILD’23 had dreamed of competing on a collegiate track and field team since middle school, and when he shared his interests with Bethel coaches and staff last year, they were determined to do everything in their power to make sure he had a chance to compete. The biggest challenge? The paperwork—hours and hours of it.

Delaske is the second student in BUILD to receive this approval since the program’s inception in 2015. When the university first applied for approval in 2017, a legislative relief waiver was granted for the individual who wanted to participate. NCAA staff said Bethel could potentially seek a blanket program waiver if more students in BUILD applied for and were approved for the waiver to play collegiate sports. That way anyone in BUILD could participate in athletics like traditional College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) students. Now, thanks to the work of Bethel coaches, BUILD leaders, and students, all future students in BUILD—or any NCAA Division III comprehensive transition program across the nation—are immediately eligible to try out alongside every other Division III athlete. 

All students still have to try out for their team and meet academic eligibility requirements, but this waiver means students in BUILD and similar programs no longer have to face months of paperwork, waiting, and the emotional whirlwind tied to the process. “The work that's been done here at Bethel has literally broken down a barrier,” says Director of BUILD Dawn Allen. “The NCAA was excited to say, ‘We're going to remove this barrier of this extra paperwork so that you can have access for your athletes as long as they are participating in a Division III comprehensive transition program.’ It’s beautiful.”

For Delaske, the opportunity to be treated as a traditional Bethel athlete mattered a lot. He currently competes as a thrower on the track and field team, and he considers the experience to be a highlight of his time at Bethel so far. “I compete with traditional college students, and you know what? I am one of them,” Delaske says. “I may have an intellectual disability, but I’m glad that I get the privilege to be in a program like BUILD.” He has enjoyed being part of a team that’s glad to have him—evidenced by their encouraging texts before practice or the support he received from athletes as he was waiting NCAA approval.

“The waiver is such a game changer for students to really feel and be fully included—not only as part of the team, but in the process. Now they don't have to go through a separate process to even get considered. They can be considered right along with every other athlete.”

— Dawn Allen, director of BUILD

Gretchen Hunt, associate athletic director for compliance and head volleyball coach, notes that students with intellectual disabilities have been allowed to compete on the NCAA Division III  level, but not without significant barriers related to program eligibility. While NCAA college athletes must be pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the institution, BUILD is a comprehensive transition program, and students graduate in two years with a certificate. The NCAA rule can be waived under certain circumstances, but the application process is extensive for staff and students alike, especially as they gather a lifetime of medical records. 

So, when Delaske decided he wanted to compete as a thrower on Bethel’s track and field team last year, Allen, Hunt, and Delaske’s family joined forces to collect, fill out, and submit the paperwork necessary for the NCAA to waive the eligibility requirement. They had to go through this process before Delaske was even able to try out for the team or attend practices to determine if collegiate sports would be a good fit for him—unlike traditional undergraduate students, who could join a few practices before officially committing to the team. The process was an investment of both time and emotion as they all waited to see if Delaske would receive the waiver.

Their request was approved about midway through the 2021-22 indoor track and field season. “I felt amazing, and I felt proud,” Delaske says when remembering the moment he found out. “It's just unbelievable when some people were saying that NCAA is really hard to get into, and some people thought I couldn't do it or have this commitment. Going into my second year of track and field is just amazing. It's life changing.”

Though a lot of effort has contributed to making this change, Hunt and Allen see it as a vital step not only for BUILD and similar programs, but for college athletics as well. “Gretchen and I are totally invested in it because we believe that there is power in opportunity, but also power in having diverse teams,” Allen says. “We wanted this to go through, but we were blown away by the fact that not only was our program approved, but really all programs in similar situations.”

Delaske is excited for future students in BUILD and across the nation to have the same opportunities he had to fight for, especially since he loves being part of Bethel athletics. He looks forward to meeting competitors from other colleges and traveling to different track and field facilities around the Midwest. He also works as a game manager for a number of Bethel sports, including football, volleyball, and basketball. The athletic community has embraced Delaske, and he’s honored to have helped pave the way for future division three athletes. “I am proud to say that I’m a Bethel University student,” Delaske says, his smile as bright as his spirit.

Student in BUILD program graduating

Explore BUILD at Bethel

The BUILD program provides a supportive and comprehensive educational experience for students with intellectual disabilities. You'll experience dynamic and encouraging instruction, career-oriented curriculum, specialized mentorship, and on-campus living—all within a supportive Christian environment.

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