DENVER — College freshman Mia Barone’s fingers are flying in the campus library, her eyes closed as she signs the words on her study list — tomorrow, free, champion, flirting.

The 18-year-old with hot pink streaks in her hair that match her fingernails has a gift for sign language, reported The Denver Post ( Barone, who has Down syndrome, began learning to sign as a baby and hopes that after she graduates from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs she will work as an interpreter or children’s sign language teacher.

Barone is among the first cohort of college students in Colorado with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, a result of the state’s delayed response to the 2008 federal Higher Education Opportunity Act that said people with intellectual disabilities have the right to attend college. Colorado was among the last four states to comply when the Legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper this year approved $75,000 per year for four years for each of three schools — UCCS, University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and Arapahoe Community College in Littleton.

This fall, Barone is one of three students attending the Colorado Springs campus through its new Office of Inclusive Services. UNC has four students enrolled, including two who live in on-campus dorms, in its new pathway for students with intellectual disabilities called GOAL — Go On and Learn. Both universities plan to increase enrollment to about 40 students within four years, when state funding runs out and the schools have to fund their offices through tuition and donations.

The students are not likely to graduate with bachelor’s degrees, but with nationally recognized certificates showing their courses, grades, internships and qualifications that prepared them for the workforce. While on campus in Colorado Springs, students are paired with a paid student mentor who accompanies them to classes, helps with homework and often joins them for lunch or at the gym. Mentors and school staff also work with professors to modify assignments when needed. At UNC, students have study sessions with paid mentors, meet with an academic coordinator who communicates with their professors, and are matched with volunteers who sign up as “fitness or social peers.”

At Arapahoe Community College, five students with intellectual disabilities are enrolled this year in that school’s track, called “Elevate.” They have peer mentors to help with homework and will choose to work toward one of the certificates the college offers or a new one created specifically for Elevate.

Students must apply to receive services and go through a selective interview process. The goal is to enroll students “who can interact with the curriculum in a meaningful way” and help them select courses that make sense for their career goals, said Christi Kasa, director of the Office of Inclusive Services in at UCCS and a professor in the college of education.

In the past decade, a handful of students with Down syndrome audited classes at UCCS, but there were no services, they could not register as students, did not get student IDs, couldn’t access online readings or discussion boards and left campus without any certificate, Kasa said. “They were on campus, but they weren’t fully accepted as students,” she said.

This new cohort of students, who pay tuition and fees, has access to everything offered to the rest of the student body.

Barone needs no modification in sign language class and likely will receive full college credit for that course, although she has permission to type her answers into a computer when her professor signs questions at the midterm exam. “If I have to write fast, I get messy,” Barone explains.

In her other class, inclusion in early childhood education, Barone has modified course work. While other students write a five-page paper, Barone, who reads and writes at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, will create a PowerPoint presentation including graphics and photos.

For her, the first weeks of her freshman year have been all that she had hoped. Barone joined the swim club after she was invited by the club president, and made a new friend who lives in the campus dorms. She loves studying, playing basketball at the campus fitness center and talking about her favorite television show, “Supernatural,” with her mentor, Ashley Smith, a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling. “I’m happy,” Barone said. “I’m having fun with Ashley Smith.”

Barone’s course schedule, including an upcoming internship at the on-campus preschool, is designed to help her get a job after graduation.

“I’m really impressed by what she can do, rather than what she can’t do,” said Smith, 27. Other students often stop them to ask questions about Smith’s job as a mentor. “Our main goal is not for us to become best friends, but to get her connected on campus and with other students.”

The new access to college has an effect not just on the students enrolled, but the rest of the students on campus, said Julie Harmon, whose son Nick is one of the three students accepted for services at UCCS this year. “Future doctors and future teachers, they will say, ‘I went to college with a young man with Down syndrome,'” she said. “It has a huge impact on the students.”

Nick Harmon, 24, was one of the handful of students who audited classes at UCCS before the new college pathway was created.

“It was during that time that I realized something like this was needed at the college,” said his mother, who also has a teenage son who has Down syndrome and plans to attend college. “The campus is packed with opportunities, and we just need to tap into them.”

Harmon’s dream is to work on cars, so the inclusive office is working to get him a job helping maintain the university’s fleet of vehicles. He is taking an entrepreneurial business innovation course, as well as the history of rock ‘n’ roll. When his classmates had to analyze the technical aspects of songs as homework, Harmon listened to eight songs and wrote about how they affected his emotions or reminded him of another piece of music. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a’ Changin'” is “a little bit sad and I think it’s about friends,” he wrote.

“College so far is pretty good,” he said.

Students with an intellectual disability who attend a college inclusion program have a 30 percent unemployment rate. Those who are segregated in high school and don’t go to college at all have a 75 percent unemployment rate, Kasa said. After the 2008 federal law, advocates for inclusive higher education began pushing for change at Colorado colleges and universities. Philosophically, higher education leaders agreed, but were hampered by a lack of funding for any new programs or services. Colorado consistently ranks 47th or 48th in the nation in state funding for higher education. Progress stalled until the legislature approved startup money for the new pathway to college during the last legislative session.

Besides the $75,000 for each school from the state, the nonprofit Colorado Initiative for Inclusive Higher Education committed to raising $25,000 per year for each campus. The agency, formed two and a half years ago, pushed for the legislation, telling lawmakers that children with Down syndrome lose their social and educational supports at the end of high school.

“Having the opportunity to go to college will be life-changing for students with intellectual disabilities,” said Beth Leon, mother of a 21-year-old with Down syndrome and president of the nonprofit’s board. “They now will be able to say, ‘I’m going to go to college and there is a college in Colorado I can go to.’ Just like their siblings, just like their peers, they are going to have an opportunity for a more independent and fulfilling life.”

Information from: The Denver Post,