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Senior Women Web's Interview with Ginny Thornburgh

by Mary McHugh

 

 

If there was ever a woman who epitomizes the spirit, energy and good will of this magazine, its Ginny Thornburgh. She is now the Director of Religion and Disability at the National Organization on Disability in Washington, but the story of how she got there is a fascinating one. Its a love story.

It all started when Ginny went to Pittsburgh in 1963 to be a bridesmaid for one of her college roommates. At the rehearsal dinner, Ginny met Dick Thornburgh, a young attorney, and she says, "I don't know what love at first sight means, but I certainly know when you meet someone and you think 'Wow! "'

Her feelings for this man became stronger after that first meeting. "Before he even kissed me, he took me to his house and showed me his three little boys fast asleep in their beds," Ginny says. Their mother, also named Ginny, had been killed in an automobile accident three years earlier when the children were 3,2 and four months. Peter, the baby, had been seriously brain injured at that time.

Ginny became their second mom - she does not like the word 'stepmother' - six months later, and her life as the wife of the Governor of Pennsylvania, Attorney General of the United States and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, as well as the mother of John, David, Peter, and later, Bill, began.

"What did I know about being a mom?" she says now. "I was a naive 23-year-old schoolteacher. I told Dick that I enjoyed our little boys but didnt know if I loved them. He told me not to worry, that the feeling would grow in me.

It did. One night I woke up and heard Peter trying to say the word Mom, she remembers. There was no doubt then in my mind that I loved him and his brothers. In 1966, the boys got another sibling, when Ginny gave birth to Bill.

Ginny's determination to help Peter achieve his full potential soon turned into advocacy for all those with brain injuries and mental retardation and eventually for those with other disabilities. Her crusade started the day she transferred Peter to a special education class at a public school in Pittsburgh. The room was in a dark, sooty basement with water seeping through the walls. She stormed up the stairs and confronted the principal. He just looked at her. "These kids don't care," he said. "Of course they do," she replied angrily.

She joined the local chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens (now called the ARC) and became its president. After Dick was elected governor, she visited institutions, hospitals and schools for people with disabilities to ensure that problems were brought to the attention of state officials. Later, she was appointed to the President's Committee on Mental Retardation.

In 1989 Alan Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability in Washington, D.C. asked her to start a program that would help religious congregations be more welcoming to people with disabilities. She eagerly agreed. When Ginny Thornburgh takes on a cause, stand back. Nothing gets in her way. She is a dynamic, energetic woman with a smile and a grace that people are immediately drawn to. This year she launched a campaign to sign up as many congregations of all faiths as possible to make their houses of worship more accessible to people with disabilities. And not just physically accessible.

"I want to help congregations of all faiths welcome people with disabilities, she says, leaning forward, intense. "It's not enough to build a ramp. Negative attitudes are the worst barriers of all. People who use a wheelchair or a cane or have trouble hearing have gifts and talents to share with their churches and synagogues. The question is - are we using them? Spiritual access for people with disabilities is every bit as important as access to health care, education, employment, transportation, and community life."

Ginnys campaign asks clergy to sign a pledge to make their houses of worship more welcoming to people with disabilities.

The pledge reads:

  • In our congregation, people with disabilities are valued as individuals, having been created in the image of God.

  • Our congregation is endeavoring to remove barriers of architecture, communications and attitudes that exclude people with disabilities from full and active participation.

  • People, with and without disabilities, are encouraged in our congregation to practice their faith and use their gifts and talents in worship, service, study and leadership.

She has already signed up almost 2000 congregations of all faiths, and she needs our help to persuade even more churches, parishes, synagogues, temples, and mosques to join her in her quest to give people with disabilities spiritual and religious choices. Its really removing the barriers of attitude that we need to address, Ginny says. The theme of our campaign is: Access: It Begins in the Heart. True friendship comes as a gift from one person to another, and that is something we can all offer, whether we come from a large cathedral or a small synagogue.

"As soon as we get to know people one by one, rather than thinking of them in a group, it's very productive. I often warn audiences about thinking of people as 'them as opposed to us.' What we do in the faith community, we do for all of us.

"The mistake we make is feeling overwhelmed and not getting to know a person as a person, with interests and abilities. Think of someone with a disability as an expert, as someone who knows what kind of accommodation will suit them and assist them the most.

"Sometimes people with disabilities cannot even get into the building where services are held. Or, when they do get in, they may not be able to negotiate stairs or narrow doorways. Some find print too small to read, sound systems that are inadequate, bathrooms they cannot use or an atmosphere that is hostile. And sometimes children with a variety of disabilities are not welcomed in religious education classes."

Ginny's efforts to help people with disabilities ("Don't say 'the disabled,' 'the blind,' 'the deaf.' Put the person first: 'a child with a disability,' 'a woman who is blind,' 'a man with hearing impairment"') embrace the world. When she and Dick had an audience with Pope John Paul II in 1990, Dick, who was there representing President Bush as his Attorney General, stepped back to allow Ginny to make a request.

"Would you convene an ecumenical conference on disability here at the Vatican, Your Holiness?" Ginny asked. "You have a very persuasive wife," an impressed pontiff said to Dick. And indeed, two years later, nine-thousand people from around the world met at the Vatican to discuss the unique needs and gifts of people with disabilities, and the Pope addressed them.

The Thornburghs' apartment in Washington is sunny and large, full of books and pictures of their four sons, two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren. You have to enter a hallway hidden away between the living room and the bedroom to find pictures of the Thornburghs with famous people - Ginny with Barbara Bush, Dick with Tammy Wynette, Jimmy Stewart, John Updike, Andrew Wyeth.

Only one picture of a famous person has a place of honor in their living room. It is the framed photograph of President Bush signing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted, not at all coincidentally, when Dick was Attorney General. The President handed him one of the pens used in the signing and said, "Give this to Ginny."

Ginny's emotions, always close to the surface, are most evident when she talks about her husband and their equal partnership. "Dick is the most enjoyable, interesting, funny, smart, kind, engaging man I could ever imagine," she says, tears filling her eyes. Over their bed there is a poster showing a trash pile with two fresh daisies popping out of the rubble, with the words, "Together We Can Make It."

"Whether we're talking about raising our sons, the ups and downs of public service, or whatever is worrisome and challenging," Ginny says, "if our marriage is strong and we are together, the rest will fall into place."

There isnt a person I can imagine Ginny not being able to connect with, Dick says, Its a gift.

Their children are grown now and Ginny is proud of them all. But she is proudest, perhaps, of Peter, who had to fight the hardest to get where he is today, living in a supervised apartment in Harrisburg and working in the warehouse of a food bank.

Theres a quality of peace and acceptance about him that we all respect, his mother says. Peter is really the glue that holds this family together.

Ginny Thornburgh has worked all her life to make this world a better place, and we can help her. Go to her web site www.nod.org and enlist your congregation in her campaign. You will be rewarded over and over again by the new friends who will become part of your life.

 

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