Shannon Murphy grew up being told what she couldn’t do, what she wasn’t capable of and what kinds of opportunities weren’t hers to pursue.
Adults around her mapped out her future. Even her own case manager steered her away from higher education.
College wasn’t a possibility for a student with a learning disability like her, Murphy remembers being warned.
“For like 21 years of my life, I didn’t think I was actually a person because I had a disability and I wasn’t an equal because I had a disability,” Murphy said. “I thought it was a curse that I had what I have, and that’s 100% not true, but that’s just unfortunately how I thought.”
Now, at age 25, Murphy has shattered the expectations of those who once insisted college was out of her reach, graduating from the University of Northern Colorado’s Go On and Learn program in 2022 and working as a paraprofessional in her hometown, Grand Junction. Murphy, who has a genetic disease known as incontinentia pigmenti, is one of 44 students with intellectual disabilities to have graduated from a Colorado college or university since 2020 through a growing movement to open up more higher education opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome and autism.
“I personally believe anyone can do anything,” Murphy said. “You just have to have the mindset to do it.”
Colorado’s first inclusive program started in 2016, making the state one of the last to introduce higher education specifically for people with intellectual disabilities . Four institutions of higher education — UNC, Arapahoe Community College, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and Regis University — now offer such programs, which disability advocates will build on with a new round of state funding that will fuel a grant program aimed at developing more inclusive programs statewide, particularly in rural parts of Colorado where students with disabilities face an especially limited set of options after high school.
“The language that you hear from families is it feels like a cliff,” said Shayna Laing, community engagement manager of IN! Pathways to Higher Education, a Colorado-based nonprofit that directs families and special needs educators to higher education programs designed for students with intellectual disabilities. “So in an ideal world, they’re going to be connected to these state services like a community center board. That’s where they would get their primary case manager to help them figure out ways that they can participate in the community, but a lot of our students in reality end up on their parents’ couch right after K-12. They feel like there’s not a lot of options for them.”
And many jobs available to those students are “pretty simplistic in nature,” with positions in grocery stores, for example, Laing noted, “so it feels like this big dropoff and like there’s nothing to do afterwards.”
IN! Pathways to Higher Education helped roll out pilot programs at UNC, UCCS and Arapahoe Community College after the legislature in 2016 designated $250,000 in state funding each year for five years. After that funding sunsetted in fiscal year 2020-21, lawmakers created a grant program with legislation during this year’s session, allocating $450,000 each year for five years to further expand higher education opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities.
IN! Pathways to Higher Education, which is distributing the grant funding, has partnered with Colorado State University and Metropolitan State University of Denver to bring inclusive higher education programs to their campuses and plans to help two other institutions in rural Colorado form their own programs in the next year. The nonprofit will open its next application cycle in January.
“We found that the rural communities really experienced lots of fear with sending their child over the mountain or over the hill, as they say,” Laing said. “And so we realized that there was lots of limitation for those students in those pockets of Colorado, and when we talk with disability service providers out there, the ongoing message is, there’s not enough services in our area. Our students are struggling. Transition programs are struggling. We don’t know what to do with them after they graduate.”
Students who graduate from an inclusive higher education program in the state spend between two and four years in college studying whatever fields most interest them and earn what’s called a comprehensive higher education certificate, which indicates they completed modified coursework and reflects their transcript, Laing said. That certificate isn’t on par with an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, she noted, but it is a formal certificate approved by a higher education institution that documents a student’s course of study and the skills they’ve developed.
Colorado students enrolled in inclusive programs navigate through higher education in many of the same ways as any college student. They rush sororities and fraternities. They live independently in apartments and attend social events on campus. They take classes with typical peers, participating in class discussions and completing assignments, often with adaptations that might include shorter papers.
They also receive extra academic support, hang out with peer mentors who help them get involved on campus and adapt to living on their own, intern and gain work experience, and connect with local vocational rehabilitation services through which a counselor gives them ongoing employment support after graduation.
Laing has seen inclusive college programs completely reroute students with intellectual disabilities, with several graduates continuing to live independently, earning better pay in more meaningful careers and deepening friendships in their own social circles.
“It’s showing what happens when we raise the bar,” Laing said. “For students with intellectual disabilities, they do get to reach it. They are capable of those things, and I think our culture has just never chosen to raise the bar, and once we do, we see them really excel and, yes, struggle and have battles along the way, but they persevere.”
Expanding independence and inclusion far beyond campuses
Nineteen students with intellectual disabilities have graduated from UCCS since 2016 with another 20 students currently enrolled, studying a wide range of disciplines including criminal justice, teaching, library studies, life sciences, sports management, film editing and human services.
Students with intellectual disabilities who take classes through the university get support from the Office of Inclusive Services, completing 72 credits over four years — three classes each semester — and seeking out internships both on and off campus. They also must attend social events of their choice to round out their college experience.
Each student receives help plotting their schedule, which includes time for homework, exercise at the campus recreation center and responsibilities in their apartment. And the Office of Inclusive Services pairs them with another undergraduate student who acts as a peer mentor to help them get to class, finish homework, go to social events and tackle chores at home.
The office also swoops in if students start falling behind in class, teaches them budgeting skills and offers a driver’s education program through which four students have secured a driver’s license.
“The growth is amazing,” said Christi Kasa, a professor in the College of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning. “Students learn to have a voice in their life, and that is the biggest difference we see, is they learn to direct their life and talk about what they want their life to be like. And that’s what we want. People need support in whatever way they need it. We want students to be as independent as they can, but more importantly we want them to have the autonomy to say, ‘This is what I want my life to look like,’ and then ask for help to get there.”
CSU has a history of educating students who have a learning disability or who need special accommodations and is branching out to specifically incorporate students with intellectual disabilities on campus. The Fort Collins campus this spring debuted a pilot program with a cohort of three students — called Ram scholars — all interested in studying agricultural sciences, whether they want to learn about growing crops and plants or caring for animals.
The program, which has carried into the summer with an agricultural internship for six students, began with funding from Larimer County toward developing a workforce innovation program for people with intellectual disabilities, said Deborah Fidler, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies under CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences, which is running the program with the College of Agricultural Sciences.
With state grant funding, CSU will continue building the program over the next five years, during which Fidler said the university will establish a more meaningful credential for students and likely broaden its focus to other fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The program’s initial emphasis on agricultural sciences fills a regional workforce demand while also aligning with the interests of many students with disabilities, said Fidler, who also serves as the director of the intellectual and developmental disabilities division of CSU’s Prevention Research Center.
“We also know that agricultural education is really unique in that it has a strong experiential learning component to it,” she said. “There’s so much of the learning process (that) happens in the real world setting where employment would actually take place.”
She has seen inclusive higher education shape CSU students who step into the role of peer mentor as much as the program has impacted those with an intellectual disability.
“It was clear that these were students who were now going to be considering their career pathways a little differently and recognizing that even if they don’t necessarily move towards a career in inclusive education, and maybe that’s not necessarily their outcome, that they will be employees in the workforce who are going to be much more inclusive in their practices,” Fidler said.
Murphy, the paraprofessional in Grand Junction, now shepherds high school students attending Central High School from school buses to the cafeteria to eat breakfast, escorts them to their classroom and makes sure they’re prepared to dive into the school day. She also helps them use the bathroom and sometimes shadows individual students in class to provide one-on-one support.
The recent UNC graduate struggles with vision problems when reading and had seizures as a newborn but grew out of them — all symptoms of her genetic disease, which also affects her mom. And Murphy sometimes needs help with walking or she struggles with balance.
Murphy, who said she has an “invisible disability,” previously spent two years at Colorado Mesa University while pursuing a vocational program for adults ages 18 to 21 with disabilities and graduated a year early when she was 20. She transferred to UNC in Greeley, picking up her life and plopping it down five hours away to begin her freshman year. She first set out to study acting, directing and theater — a passion stemming from her childhood — but shifted to a major in human services toward the end of her first semester when an instructor spelled out her strength in helping others.
Murphy has mostly fond memories of her years in college, when she devoted a lot of time to a Catholic campus ministry group apart from her classes. College, she said, enabled her to land in a career in which she can mentor students while also earning a better wage that will soon hopefully give her the footing to move out of her parents’ house.
“It just like helped me experience what everyone else experiences,” she said, “but like not in the traditional way.”