Self advocate helps people to speak up for themselves


Barbara Coppens has learned how important it is to keep learning, to make friends and to...

The United  States actually celebrates its independence from Great Britain on the Fourth of July. For Barbara Coppens, an advocate assistant with Disability Rights New Jersey, each day is Independence Day, as she promotes the rights of the disabled and their efforts to live and work on their own in the community.

It’s a journey that has taken the 54-year-old Coppens from the Vineland Developmental Center in Southern New Jersey to the New Jersey Legislature and the White House, speaking out as an advocate on behalf of those whose voices are not always heard.

For Coppens, former president of the New Jersey Statewide Self-Advocacy Network, it’s a cause that’s close to her heart, as she has traveled the same path of those she is trying to help.

“Self-advocacy means speaking up for yourself, being independent, having choices and making your own decisions,” Coppens said in the third-floor offices of DRNJ in downtown Trenton, the state’s capital city.

DRNJ is a private, nonprofit organization that has been designated as the state’s protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities and serves as a clearinghouse of information to help the disabled.

When asked a question, Coppens chooses her words carefully before speaking. Her co-workers are quick to speak up and praise her efforts.

“Barbara is very enthusiastic. She loves what she does,” said Edris McAllister, a senior staff advocate who oversees Coppens’ work. “She’s a very strong advocate for people with disabilities.”

Coppens brings an empathy to her dealings with the disabled. Behavioral problems led her to stay at the Vineland center, which provides support for females with developmental disabilities, from the age of 5 to 21.

Focus on learning

Despite the relocation from her home in Bergen County in Northern New Jersey, Coppens kept her focus on learning. She graduated from Vineland Senior High School at age 20 and still remembers the date she got her diploma – June 19, 1978.

Despite the occasional teasing from her fellow students, she still goes back for school gatherings.

“I’ve been to a couple of reunions and hope to go back for my 35th next year,” she said.

After graduation, she moved to a group home in Woodbury and brought a positive attitude to her quest to find a job. Coppens recalled scanning the help wanted ads of the local newspaper, finding a job opening for a housekeeper at a nearby motel in Mount Ephraim and pedaling her bicycle over to fill out an application and undergo a job interview.

“I was hired on the spot, just like that,” she recalled, snapping her fingers for emphasis.

That job bolstered her confidence about living on her own and succeeding in the outside world. In 1980, Coppens got her own apartment in Cherry Hill, where she has lived for the past 32

“People with developmental disabilities have the right to be out in the community and have jobs, just like everyone else,” noted Coppens, who has held a succession of jobs before starting work at DRNJ in July 2005.

Barbara Coppens bowling

Showing perfect follow-through, Barbara Coppens takes a shot at Playdrome Bowling in Cherry Hill. Photo by Avi Steinhardt

Coppens commutes to her job in Trenton on the River LINE, a rail service that runs along the Delaware River. She bicycles from Cherry Hill to the Pennsauken station (“It’s my morning workout”) and rides the bike from her stop in Trenton to her office.

The bicycle serves as her primary means of transportation and a symbol of independence since she doesn’t drive a car. She recently acquired a 21-speed bicycle with the help of her co-workers. Cycling is one of her favorite pastimes, which is evident from the photograph of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong prominently displayed on her office door.

Her other interests include going to the movies with her roommate. Her favorite types of films include comedies and animated features. She enjoys movies features talking animals (“Dr. Doolittle”
with Eddie Murphy and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” are two of her favorites).

Coppens also follows professional football and is a fan of both the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, two teams with sizable fan bases in New Jersey.

“It’s never boring,” she says, explaining why she likes football. “I got it from my father,” she added.

The interest in football is not the only thing they have in common. They share the same birthday: Feb. 2, which is also Groundhog Day. “I was his birthday present,” Coppens pointed out.

Among participatory sports, Coppens is an avid bowler. “I have my own ball and shoes and all that bit,” she said.

She’s become a proficient bowler over the years. “I’ve bowled over 200 in a few games,” Coppens said, adding she hopes to join a bowling league.

Coppens also enjoys traveling, which fits in well with her job.

“I go out in the field sometimes and go to meetings and conferences around the state,” said Coppens, who has been honored for her work by the Camden County freeholders. “I talk to people (with disabilities) and make sure they’re getting treated the way they’re supposed to and see if they are interested in moving out into the community and bring the information back here.”

That information is turned over to the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities, she noted. “They’re the ones who place the people in the community.”

Much more accepting

As she grew up and entered the workplace, Coppens has seen a change in how the disabled are perceived. “Definitely, the public is much more accepting (of people with disabilities) than when I was a child,” she said.

Coppens has worked hard to educate people that such terms as “retard” and “retarded” are no longer acceptable terms for people with disabilities. Those are words she heard from classmates in high school, and she still recalls the pain they inflicted.

“I’m a person with an intellectual disability. The R-word isn’t about being politically incorrect,” Coppens wrote in a 2010 article for The Record newspaper in Northern New Jersey. “The R-word issue is about respect and communication; it’s about each and every one of us taking responsibility right now for the effect of our words on our fellow human beings.”

Coppens also credits passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 with creating advances for people with disabilities in society, including improvements in building accessibility and transportation and better accommodations in the workplace.

Advocates for the disabled now have access to the highest levels of the federal government as Coppens discovered in February when she went to the White House to attend a community leaders briefing on intellectual and development disabilities. It was a chance for senior White House officials to hear directly from members of the disabled community about their concerns.

Barbara Coppens (left) has a good laugh with roommate Josephine Messina at their Cherry Hill apartment.

Barbara Coppens (left) has a good laugh with roommate Josephine Messina at their Cherry Hill apartment.Photo by Avi Steinhardt

As a member of The Arc national board of directors, Coppens got to tour the East Wing and hear President Barack Obama, who made a surprise appearance, tell the disabled community: “I’ve got your back.”

Coppens took advantage of the conference to state her views directly to Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, on the importance of self-advocacy.

“I tell other self-advocates — you’ve got to get out and advocate for yourself because you can’t rely on other people to make change for you,” Coppens said.

For Coppens, it was a day she’ll never forget. She has one regret about her encounter with the president. “I should have sat in the front; I would have gotten to shake his hand.”

Tom Wilk is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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