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More college opportunities open for students with disabilities

“I personally believe people with disabilities can do anything,” Shannon Murphy stated.

Colorado is working to get more students with intellectual and developmental disabilities into college.

Since 2021, 52 students with intellectual disabilities have graduated from colleges in Colorado. Many of these young people were told that higher education was “off-limits.”

Shannon Murphy of Grand Junction struggled through school. She was diagnosed at a young age with a genetic disease known as incontinentia pigmenti — a genetic condition that affects the skin and other systems of the body — which left her with an intellectual disability. Murphy was repeatedly told by case workers and teachers that she wouldn’t be able to pursue higher education.  

Two years ago, Shannon Murphy graduated from the University of Northern Colorado’s Go On And Learn program, and is now employed as a paraprofessional in her hometown.

“I personally believe people with disabilities can do anything,” Shannon Murphy stated.

Tracey Murphy is the executive director of IN! Pathways to Inclusive Higher Education. IN!’s mission is, “to create inclusive college opportunities in Colorado for students with intellectual disabilities to foster academic growth, social development, and career advancement,” according to Tracey Murphy.

“Historically, society’s low expectations coupled with limited opportunities have prevented people with intellectual disabilities from the benefits associated with a college education,” Tracey Murphy said. “While peers move to the next phase of their lives, students with (intellectual disabilities) sit on the sidelines. Consequently, they transition from high school to adult day programs, very low-paying jobs, or, in too many cases, simply end up sitting idly at home with limited social outlets. Many individuals live hopelessly below the poverty line and have little prospect of rising above it.”

IN! and another organization, Think College, are trying to combat the challenges facing young people with intellectual or developmental differences by allowing for post-secondary inclusion.

In 2015, these organizations partnered with colleges and universities in the state to advocate for SB16-196, which provided funding for inclusive higher education programs. The bill passed the state legislature in 2016 and established opportunities for inclusive higher education at three schools. That year, Arapahoe Community College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of Northern Colorado opened their doors to inclusive higher education.

In 2022, Regis University established a program for inclusive higher education, called Regis GLOBAL.

This year, IN! is distributing grant funding to two additional institutions in the state. Colorado State University and Metropolitan State University of Denver will bring inclusive higher education programs to their campuses starting next year.

Students who graduate from an inclusive higher education program in the state don’t earn a traditional bachelor’s degree. Rather, these students 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.

Students enrolled in inclusive programs live and study as much as any other student. They rush sororities and fraternities. They live independently in apartments and attend social events on campus. They participate in campus activities. They take classes with typical peers, participating in class discussions and completing assignments, but with modifications and peer support.

There are now approximately 80 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities enrolled in higher education programs in the state of Colorado.

“While students with (intellecutal disabilities) have historically been denied college options, inclusive higher education has proven that when given the opportunity, students are reaping the benefits from post-secondary education, including, increased access to competitive employment, increased socialization, community belonging and greater independence,” Tracey Murphy said.

Expanding the college dream to include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities also means expanding the college community, which is its own kind of advocacy, Tracey Murphy said.

“We are showing the other students and faculty that individuals with (intellectual disabilities) are capable of succeeding in college, engaging in the workforce and being an active part of their communities,” Tracey Murphy said.