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College seniors are wrapping up their final semester while figuring out what to do next. This includes a group of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. In this series, Colorado Sun reporter Erica Breunlin and KUNC reporter Stephanie Daniel examine how Colorado is preparing these students for a job and to lead independent lives.

Colorado's Inclusive Higher Ed, Employment Programs Help People With Cognitive Disabilities Secure Competitive Jobs

UNC GOAL_Brendan Balmes
Valerie Mosley
Special to the Colorado Sun
Brendan Balmes has an internship at Crabtree Brewing Company through the University of Northern Colorado's Go On And Learn (GOAL) program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Two of his main responsibilities were filtering beer and running the keg washing machine. Balmes will soon graduate and hopes to find a job at a brewery.

On a recent Friday afternoon in Greeley, Brendan Balmes stops by Crabtree Brewing Company for a beer and to say hello to his boss, Jeff Crabtree. The 28-year-old works here as an intern, but the pandemic has put things on hold for now.

That does not stop Crabtree from giving Balmes a pop quiz to make sure he still knows what to.

“What does this machine do? Do you remember?” Crabtree asks.

“Wash kegs,” Balmes replies.

“That’s right, washes kegs. So, do you remember how to do it?” Crabtree continues.

“Yes, I do,” Balmes says.

Balmes has Down syndrome and is a senior at the University of Northern Colorado. He’s enrolled in UNC’s Go On and Learn (GOAL), an inclusive higher education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The four-year program focuses on academics, social inclusion and career readiness.

Balmes is studying brewing science, and when he graduates in May, will earn a Comprehensive Higher Education Certificate. He plans to pursue his dream career, working in a brewery or a restaurant.

“I just really like learning stuff about beer,” he says.

A 2018 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 37% of Coloradans with cognitive disabilities were employed. The national average was 28%. But during COVID-19, many in this group have lost their jobs. A disability inclusion consulting firm conducted a national survey that suggests 38% of people with a disability were laid off, furloughed or had to shut down their business due to the pandemic.

Sell the skill, not the disability

Colorado has three inclusive higher education programs: GOAL at UNC, Inclusive Services at University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and Elevate at Arapahoe Community College. They were created after the state legislature passed the 2016 Inclusive Higher Education Pilot Program bill. The programs currently serve over 70 students with IDD.

UNC GOAL_Christina Ruffatti
Valerie Mosley
Special to the Colorado Sun
Christina Ruffatti is the executive director of the University of Northern Colorado's Go On And Learn (GOAL) program. GOAL provides an opportunity for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live on campus and attend college.

As part of the GOAL program, UNC students have paid on-campus jobs during their first two years and then externships for school credit during their junior and senior years.

“Learning real-life employment skills matters,” said Christina Ruffatti, GOAL’s executive director. “What we never do when we’re job developing for individuals with disabilities is talk about the disability first. First, we sell the skill set.”

Ruffatti knew Balmes was interested in working in a brewery, so she reached out to Crabtree, who is also a UNC alum. It was an easy fit, said Crabtree, because he is already working with other students in the university’s brewing science program.

“We started with general packaging, general prep and then he worked his way up (running machines),” he said. “He was also filtering beer at the end of his shift.”

Historically, those with IDD were employed in group work settings, making sub-minimum wage.

Bob Lawhead, a policy advisor for the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, has worked in this field for 40 years, primarily advocating for people to gain employment. He also has a 24-year-old son with Down syndrome who works part-time.

“We have this whole system from birth to death that presumes incompetence of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” he said.

These employment programs grew like crazy in the 1950s and '60s, said Lawhead, because they gave people jobs. But there was a downside: people with IDD got pigeonholed and stuck in this type of employment.

“The problem is when you create a whole system like that,” he said. “It’s gosh darn hard to dismantle.”

These beliefs are slowly changing. This is partly due to federal civil rights legislation like the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead Supreme Court decision. By the mid-1990s Colorado led the nation, employing 50% of people with disabilities.

“We got that taste in the ‘90s of being very successful in this area by training that employment support workforce, by working with employers and effectively providing ongoing customer service to them when they agreed to do these kinds of employment arrangements,” Lawhead said.

But then employment rates started to fall, he said.

The employment model went from being funded by the state to being funded through Medicaid, which decreased financial incentives for employers to hire people. Also, the model was too dependent on who was heading up state agencies.

“We would have success when we had a leader who bought into it and felt it was a good idea,” he said. “But without legislation, without it in statute, those pieces of progress tended to backslide.”

Lawson partnered with other advocates and state lawmakers to develop the Employment First for Persons with Disabilities bill. It passed in 2016 and created the Employment First Advisory Partnership (EFAP). EFAP is a collaboration between five state agencies and community stakeholders that implement Employment First policies and practices to change state systems. The goal is to improve competitive integrated employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

“We’re not saying that you can drop a person with significant disabilities into any job,” said Lawhead, an EFAP tri-chair. “What we are saying is that when you match that particular job with that person’s skills, you do what’s called customized employment.”

UNC GOAL_Brendan Balmes & Jeff Crabtree
Valerie Mosley
Special to The Colorado Sun
Crabtree Brewing Company owner Jeff Crabtree talks with Brendan Balmes at the brewery in Greeley. Balmes has an externship at Crabtree Brewing through the University of Northern Colorado's Go On And Learn (GOAL) program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Employment First is a national movement based on the premise that all individuals with disabilities are capable of full participation in the workforce. They should work in competitive jobs with workers without disabilities, make minimum wage and be eligible for a promotion.

According to a 2017 EFAP report, 46 states have some type of Employment First-focused initiative. Of those, at least 33 have an official state policy that employment in the general workforce is the preferred service option for people with disabilities.

Competitive integrated employment

In 2019, the Colorado Office of Employment First (COEF) was created as a direct result of the Employment First legislation. The office is housed at the Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“We know that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have great strengths to offer and offer an employer,” said Patricia Henke, director of COEF. “It’s a matter of really identifying what those are to help an individual thrive in a workplace.”

COEF coordinates with all the different stakeholders from the state agencies to families and service providers. It also offers Employment First trainings and education, individual placement and support, and customized employment services.

“Competitive employment, real wages for real pay, is a social determinant of health,” she said. “Going to work makes you feel better. You have less visits to the doctor. You have a community. You are earning money that opens up doors to further prosperity and living independently.”

Despite the rewards of working, Katherine Carol, an EFAP tri-chair, said having a job and making money with a disability can be complicated.

“People are terrified that they will lose their Medicaid,” she said.

Carol’s adult daughter, Mikelle Learned, has cerebral palsy. She is a homeowner, entrepreneur and advocate. Mikelle receives monthly Social Security checks and uses a wheelchair and support services, which are paid for by Medicaid.

It would be devastating if Learned lost all of that because her income was too high, said Carol, who also chairs the Colorado’s State Rehabilitation Council and serves on boards in other states.

“If I had to choose between employment and that, I would kick employment out the door,” she said. “I would always maintain those benefits because it’s just so expensive. People have no idea how expensive care is.”

The Office of Employment First offers benefits counseling to help people with disabilities avoid having to choose between having a job and receiving benefits. It plans to add a Benefits 101 page to its website soon.

The Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which falls under the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), is a member of EFAP. The agency recently hired its first benefits planner coordinator to train DVR counselors on the importance of providing and supporting benefits planning and coordination so they can better serve clients.

“It’s a complicated system,” said Meghan Greene, the competitive integrated employment manager for the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). "(We want) to flip the script away from fear to ‘here’s the knowledge and here’s how we’re going to support you and here’s why employment still works within that narrative.’”

From July 2020 to January 2021, DVR helped 871 people with disabilities find jobs. The yearly average for the past decade is 2,154.

CDLE also follows the State as a Model Employer framework, meaning the agency has adopted a slate of policies to improve employment for people with disabilities. In 2019, the state legislature funded a new, three-year position: state adviser on disability employment. The job is focused on how CDLE and the state can recruit, hire and retain more people with disabilities.

“State as a model employer (is a) nationally recognized concept that states should be the model for hiring individuals with disabilities so that private organizations will do the same thing and community organizations will do the same thing,” said Caitlin Adams, the state adviser on disabilities.

When she started, Adams conducted a lot of research, assessments on state and CDLE’s employment practices and evaluations of what other states are doing. From there, CDLE began implementing changes including rewriting job descriptions, developing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion trainings, and accessibility and universal design.

“We want to be an employer that individuals with disabilities think of when they’re looking for a job,” she said.

UNC GOAL_Brendan Balmes mail
Valerie Mosley
Special to The Colorado Sun
Brendan Balmes picks up his packages after class at the University of Northern Colorado. Brendan will graduate from UNC's Go On And Learn (GOAL) program this year, which provides an opportunity for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live on campus and attend college.

Career readiness

UNC’s GOAL program is designed to help students create and lead lives as independent as they want.

“It’s about building self-determination, about building self-advocacy, about building awareness of the larger world and their place in it,” Ruffatti said.

To help build these life skills, GOAL students live in residence halls alongside other UNC students. They also take specific GOAL classes each semester which cover topics ranging from the transition to college to finances and living with others. During their last semester, seniors take a class that prepares them to work and live independently after graduating.

Senior Isabelle Woloson, who has Down syndrome, is a communications major who participates in a gender-inclusive fraternity and lives off-campus with another GOAL student. While at UNC, the 21-year-old worked on-campus in dining services and completed an internship with Weld County.

UNC GOAL_Isabelle Woloson
Valerie Mosley
Special to the Colorado Sun
Isabelle Wilson participates in a senior level Go On And Learn (GOAL) class at the University of Northern Colorado.

Woloson feels career “ready-ish.”

“With the knowledge that I learned being within a job and learning valuable skills within the college experience of like building up a resume and a cover letter,” she said. “And being able to go through an interview process before applying (to) a job or internship.”

Her goal is to become a life coach and is in the process of getting certified. She wants to work with parents who have a child with a disability.

“Getting some good sources out there for them,” she said. “(So, they) can feel more stable in their life.”

Life after college

Crabtree, the brewery owner, thinks his intern Balmes is qualified for an entry-level job at a larger organization as a cellarman on a packaging line. He could have a successful career, especially if he’s teamed up with a mentor.

“He could work the rest of his life,” Crabtree said.

Balmes has a great attitude and work ethic, said Crabtree, and, like the other UNC interns, is addicted to his phone.

“As brewmaster, I have to say, ‘guys, put your phones away. We’re actually doing a job right now and we should be focusing on that,’” Crabtree said.

UNC GOAL_Brendan Balmes & Jason Greening
Valerie Mosley
Special to the Colorado Sun
Brendan Balmes, right, talks with his friend and peer mentor Jason Greening at Crabtree Brewing Company in Greeley.

Balmes sits at a picnic table in Crabtree Brewery Company’s outdoor area. He is enjoying a beer with his friend, Jason Greening. Greening, 41, is a degree-seeking student at UNC, studying elementary education. He is also a peer mentor for the GOAL program for social activities.

Greening works with Balmes on any non-academic things he might encounter throughout his day.

“If he wants to talk relationship stuff, we do. If he wants to talk about just problems in the world he’s having, he wants to have a friend to talk with, there’s that,” Greening said. “I’ll also go out with him into social settings around the world, shopping, dinner.”

Greening and Balmes usually hang out at least once a week and have developed a close relationship. They've bonded over beer, football and movies.

“He is kind of a big brother to me,” Balmes said.

After graduation, Balmes plans to move back to Golden with his parents. He will follow a family tradition, hanging his UNC pennant on a wall in the basement. He plans to travel and work at a local brewery.

While drinking their beers, Greening throws out another post-graduation idea for Balmes. They can brew their own beer in Greening’s garage and Balmes gets to decide the name.

“What would you name your brewery?” Greening asks.

“I would name mine Brendan’s Brewery,” he replies with a smile.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.