Elsie Dressler Helsel

Photo courtesy of: The Ohio Women's Hall of Fame

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Ohio University mourns associate professor emerita, developmental disabilities advocate

Elsie Helsel, Ohio University associate professor emerita of curriculum and instruction and former chair of special education, died Aug. 9 at 97.

Helsel initially obtained a masters and Ph.D. in genetics, but a mother's passion for advocacy led her to her true calling, special education and speaking up for those with special needs.

In 1946, her second child, son Robin Helsel, was diagnosed shortly after birth with cerebral palsy and mental retardation. Advised against caring for him at home, Elsie Helsel and her husband, Robert Helsel, made it their goal to give their son as normal a life as possible.

She began a mission of advocacy for those with developmental disabilities and became involved with the Association of Retarded Children (ARC) and United Cerebral Palsy Association (UCPA). She sat on the UCPA board of directors and opened their Washington, D.C. offices. Helsel locally founded the ARC and UCPA of Franklin County, Ohio.

Helsel lobbied for legislation to protect the rights and needs of those with developmental disabilities, such as the Federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act.

"Dr. Helsel was a force to be reckoned with regarding the improvement of special education at the local, state, regional and especially at the national level," said Associate Provost Emerita and Associate Professor Emerita of Education Barbara Reeves. "She was instrumental in passage of landmark legislation regarding the services to those with special needs. She worked tirelessly and persistently for the 'cause.'"

To enhance her credibility as a campaigner for the rights of those with special needs, Helsel earned her masters in special education. She joined the faculty of Ohio University's College of Education, now the Gladys W. and David H. Patton College of Education. Eventually becoming chair of Special Education, she also became director of the Center for Human Development, the first clinic in the region for infants and young children showing developmental delays. Always working to enhance access to opportunity and education, she designed the University's first program for the disabled.

"Dr. Helsel has established a legacy that is consistent with a very important core value in The Patton College of Education -- advocacy," said Dean of the Patton College Renée Middleton. "Dr. Helsel was a tireless advocate for children with developmental disabilities. She sought to embrace diversity, especially as it related to persons with disability. Her dedication, commitment and leadership are a model for our students and faculty. She will always be remembered by us as someone who cared and who accepted the call to lead."

Helsel also collaborated. She reached across disciplines to the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and College of Health Sciences and Professions (CHSP). She worked to create connections between those who medically treat people with developmental disabilities and those who educate people with developmental disabilities.

"She championed special education as a major when in the College of Education," said Reeves. "When she moved to the Center [for Human Development] and aligned with the College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Health and Human Services [now CHSP], she created a model for collaboration in the delivery of services."

In memory of Helsel, the family suggests contributions to the Ohio University Foundation in support of the Robin Helsel Award. Established in 1997, the Robin Helsel Award provides financial support each year to an Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine medical student who demonstrates interest in serving people with developmental disabilities or other special needs and who indicates an intention to practice in a rural area, preferably southeast Ohio. To give to the Robin Helsel Award or to ask questions about the award, contact interim Director of Medical Development Sharon Zimmerman by at 740-593-2176 or zimmerms@ohio.edu.

She is survived by her children. Robin has continued to thrive in the Athens community. Helsel's daughter, Marjorie DeWert, continues her mother's work toward accessible education through her position as senior eLearning designer at Ohio University.