Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Activists for Those with Intellectual Disabilities to Be Lauded

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Activists for Those with Intellectual Disabilities to Be Lauded

Article excerpt

In the 1960s and '70s, a young Ginny Thornburgh would jump into a car with other moms and travel across Western Pennsylvania to check conditions at centers for people with intellectual disabilities.

She said the sights, such as cages for residents with behavioral problems and graves where the dead were identified only by number, left "images on my heart" and propelled her to a career of advocacy.

"I think I probably always, as a little girl, well before I was married, rooted for the underdog," said Ms. Thornburgh, wife of former Gov. Dick Thornburgh. She's one of 20 advocates to be honored Nov. 12 by the United Way of Allegheny County, Community Living and Support Services, and Achieva.

The first-of-its-kind event here -- called "From Wrongs to Rights" -- will be held at the Heinz History Center. Today is the deadline to register at

Organizers will recognize longtime activists, such as Ms. Thornburgh and South Side resident Chuck Peters, an ex-Marine who adapted anti-war tactics to the disability-rights movement, while hailing new leaders, such as Chaz Kellem, who uses professional baseball to raise disability awareness, and Josie Badger, who helps adolescents with disabilities plan their futures.

Ms. Badger, an Ohio Township resident and 2012 Ms. Wheelchair America, will join Robert Nelkin, United Way president, in a discussion of activism past and present. Other topics include "the modern cage" and creating change.

While some honorees got involved because of their children -- Ms. Thornburgh's son, Peter, has intellectual and physical disabilities - - others have disabilities themselves.

Ms. Thornburgh said she was in her late 20s when she joined those pioneering trips to make surprise inspections at what then were known as homes for people with mental retardation. At the time, she was working with Achieva's predecessor, Arc Allegheny, and the person driving the moms was Mr. Nelkin.

On visits to Polk State School and Hospital in Venango County, she found bathrooms in which residents had no privacy, a ward with 100 beds arranged cheek by jowl in groups of four, the cemetery with numbered graves and the infamous cages, or cribs, that in 1973 landed the institution's superintendent in hot water. …

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