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Colleges Prep Students With Intellectual, Developmental Disabilities For Jobs


It is graduation season, and the University of Northern Colorado just graduated the first class in its inclusive higher education program. This is designed for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Reporter Stephanie Daniel from member station KUNC has the story.

STEPHANIE DANIEL, BYLINE: College senior Brendan Balmes can see a future for himself in Colorado's booming craft brewing industry. He's been studying brewing science.

BRENDAN BALMES: I just really like learning stuff about beer.

DANIEL: Balmes, who is 29 and has Down syndrome, had an internship at Crabtree Brewing Company in Greeley, Colo., until COVID shut it down.

JEFF CRABTREE: Hey, Brendan.

B BALMES: Hey, Jeffrey.

DANIEL: On a recent visit to say hello, his boss, Jeff Crabtree, quizzed him on the equipment.

CRABTREE: And what does this machine do? Do you remember?

B BALMES: Wash tanks.

CRABTREE: Washes kegs.

B BALMES: Wash kegs.

CRABTREE: That's right. It washes kegs.

DANIEL: Balmes says experience here helped him land a job at a different brewery postgraduation. That puts him in a minority. A U.S. Census Bureau survey found that nationwide, less than a third of adults with cognitive disabilities were employed. Colorado's rate is slightly higher.

MARGARET NYGREN: People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are very underemployed in our country.

DANIEL: Margaret Nygren is head of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. She says people who participate in inclusive higher ed have a higher employment rate than those who don't.

NYGREN: These kinds of post-secondary educational programs are really conceptualized as a pathway to employment.

DANIEL: Christina Ruffatti runs the University of Northern Colorado's four-year non-degree program called GOAL. Its three pillars are academics, social inclusion and career readiness. Students work on campus during their first two years and then have externships during their junior and senior years.

CHRISTINA RUFFATTI: Being involved in things is really part of that whole inclusive mindset and not treating a GOAL student differently because of a disability.

DANIEL: Students live in the residence halls and can participate in clubs, activities and everything else the university has to offer.

RUFFATTI: It's about building self-determination, about building self advocacy, about building awareness of the larger world and their place in it.

DANIEL: The University of Northern Colorado is joining about 300 other post-secondary schools across the country with inclusive education programs. It offers a comprehensive higher education certificate instead of a traditional bachelor's degree.


DANIEL: This spring, Brendan Balmes and three others became the first to graduate from it.

B BALMES: Woo-hoo.

DANIEL: His family was there to watch. His parents, Chuck (ph) and Molly (ph), never thought Brendan would attend a four-year university like his sisters did.

CHUCK BALMES: We have that pennant wall, and all of our pennants are up there from our college days. And now Brendan's is up there, which is a very proud moment for us as a family.

MOLLY BALMES: I guess it's an achievement for their group of people with disabilities, too. I feel like they're kind of representative pioneers, the first group from UNC to do this. And it's really cool to be part of it.

DANIEL: After the ceremony, Balmes is moving back with his parents and has a part-time job at a brewery greeting customers and bussing tables. He hopes it leads to more.

B BALMES: I'll probably be helping make beer and helping with the kegs.

DANIEL: Two inclusive higher ed graduates at the University of Northern Colorado now have jobs, too. Another plans to start a life coaching business for families, kids and students with disabilities. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Daniel in Greeley.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "GARAGE SHOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Daniel
I grew up in Denver and, after living out-of-state for many years, am happy to be back in Colorado covering education and general news for KUNC.