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Advocacy for Special Needs in Delaware


Ellen Coulston, the 2011 Mom Congress delegate from Delaware, is working hard to help kids with disabilities learn how to advocate for themselves. Together with Debra Heffernan, a representative in the Delaware state legislature, Ellen co-founded the Brandywine Special Needs PTA, which encourages these kids to reach for their goals and encourage others to do the same.

Their first meeting in October, entitled Kids Inspiring Kids, featured speakers with learning disabilities, including Ellen’s son Chris, who spoke to other students, teachers, parents, politicians and administrators about wanting to be a social worker when he grows up and what he’s doing to advocate for his own education. The meeting gave attendees an opportunity to hear youth with special needs talk about advocating for themselves while in school or transitioning from school to work or from high school to college.

"We've got to empower them. If we empower them, they will feel better about themselves," said Ellen Coulston. "They have something to contribute." And she and other members of the BSNPTA are empowering them and giving them opportunities to help and train others. Like she said, it’s not just that we want them to feel like they have something to contribute – they DO have something to contribute and we need to give them avenues to be involved.

Ellen is a role model of successful advocacy for children with disabilities. From an article in the Wilmington News Journal in October:

“Her 19-year-old son, Clement, has a brain injury that affects his language and memory, which stemmed from a car accident during his senior year at Salesianum High School.

Clement is a sophomore at the University of Delaware studying elementary education. He learned to advocate for himself after recovering from his accident and still does it in college. He and a classmate and friend, Emma Hansen, also a UD student with a brain injury, encouraged younger students to do the same.

Supportive parents like Ellen Coulston are one of the driving engines that make students continue to work hard.”

Representative Heffernan, Ellen’s BSNPTSA cofounder, has also raised awareness with two historic pieces of legislation regarding people with disabilities in Delaware - PEOPLE FIRST LANGUAGE! 

About the legislation, Ellen says, “When we talk about people with disabilities, we often refer to them as their disability instead of always seeing them as a PERSON FIRST. With Debra's legislation, we are changing attitudes by changing language.

Debra has been instrumental at the state legislature getting issues raised about people with disabilities. In fact, the statewide disability community just named her the 2011 Delaware Legislature of the Year!!!   Freshmen legislators typically do not receive this honor! Deb is going to be receiving her award at the statewide LiFE conference in January. She's rocking our state with awareness and the message that Everyone Counts and Everyone Wants to Belong! She's such a MOM (Congress)!”

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at Bite Upon Bite, and occasionally the gym.