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State Council for Persons with Disabilities


The Story Behind the Mary Custis Straughn Award

The State Council for Persons with Disabilities Executive Committee chose to name our annual award in memory of Mary Custis Straughn who passed away in September of 1991.”

The State Council for Persons with Disabilities Executive Committee chose to name our annual award in memory of Mary Custis Straughn who passed away in September of 1991.

In addition to being an artist, musician, teacher, florist, lecturer, and business woman she was at all times an outspoken advocate and activist for Delaware's individuals with disabilities. She fiercely advocated for the rights of persons with disabilities for many years prior to developing Multiple Sclerosis and suffering from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. However, even this did not prevent her from actively campaigning to increase awareness of the injustices endured by individuals with disabilities.

One of Mary Custis Straughn's many accomplishments included working for the 1990 passage of the world's first comprehensive civil rights law for individuals with disabilities known as the Americans with Disabilities Act. She was so resilient and compelling during her lobbying of Delaware's congressional delegation that President Bush invited her to the signing ceremony at the White House. She proudly arrived on a stretcher to participate in the historic event. In the spring of 1991, Mary Custis Straughn won the Americans with Disabilities Act Award. The 1991 Chair of the State Council for Persons with Disabilities described Mary as an unrelenting advocate and unique individual who believe that her mission was to improve conditions for individuals with disabilities.

In addition to winning the Americans with Disabilities Act Award, Governor Castle presented her with the 1990 Victory Award because of her integrity, courage, inner strength and exceptional purpose in fighting for the rights of individuals with disabilities. Miss Straughn represented Delaware during a national awards recognition ceremony held in Washington, D.C. in November of 1990 and was a guest at the winner's tea that then First Lady Barbara Bush hosted at the White House. The Wilmington City Council also honored Mary Custis Straughn in the 1990s for her advocacy and activism on behalf of persons with disabilities.

Some of Miss Straughn's other accomplishments included chairing the Delaware Paratransit Advisory Committee that advocated changing the state's system of mass transit for persons with disabilities. Her testimony during the state budget hearings in 1990 focused attention on what it was like for individuals with disabilities to use mass transportation helping to lead the Delaware Administration for Specialized Transportation (DAST) to overhaul its services. She held hearings in Dover and Wilmington that reviewed the quality of work related services provided by the Delaware Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for individuals who were physically or mentally disabled ensuring the timeliness of services received. She chaired the Delaware Advisory Council for the Coordination of Services to the Handicapped and was instrumental in it being renamed to the State Council for Persons with Disabilities. She fought for the restructuring of health insurance in addition to serving on the Governor's Health Care Commission, Health Insurance Subcommittee.

Mary Custis "Custie" Straughn was a graduate of Mount Pleasant High School and the University of Delaware having completed her graduate studies in cellular physiology at the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at the University of Pennsylvania and completed research into behavioral and physiological rhythms associated with the 24-hour cycles of the Earth's rotation before becoming interested in plants.

Miss Straughn started Green Leaf Inc., in Delpark Manor, near Stanton in the 1960s owning the greenhouse for over 25 years where she employed individuals with mental and physical disabilities. In the early 1960s Miss Straughn opened the Green Leaf Florist Shop on Kirkwood Highway operating it until 1985. Miss Straughn opened her own studio "Custie's Place" on Union Street where she did oil painting portraits and animal pictures.

Even in her passing, Mary Custis Straughn advocated for persons with disabilities.  Her family encouraged contributions to the Mary Custis Straughn Scholarship Fund for Disabled Students at the University of Delaware in lieu of flowers.