United Way, CLASS, Achieva to honor disability advocates

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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. The deadline for registering - at mhartley@uwac.org - is Friday.

Organizers intend to 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 at the daylong event 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 and embraced advocacy as part of their journeys to self-discovery.

Ms. Thornburgh said she was in her late 20s when she joined those pioneering road 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 around 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.

She encountered other tragedies, such as a man who choked to death because staff members neglected orders to puree his food, at other institutions. Yet she said she also found "pockets of excellence" throughout the state, and in 1985, when her husband was governor, she made a triumphant return to Polk's cemetery to dedicate 1,450 new headstones with names on them.

She now is director of interfaith initiative for the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Peters said he used picketing and bus trips to the state Capitol to call attention to the need for better funding and services for intellectual disabilities. After serving as director of Arc Allegheny from 1969 to 1973, he took a job with the state, which he now calls his "sleeping with the enemy period."

"My thought was I could make the change from the inside out," said Mr. Peters, who after about two frustrating years gave up his post as commissioner of mental retardation. He later headed many of Allegheny County's human service programs and prided himself on a nimble response to mental-health crises, such as the September 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 in Beaver County.

Ms. Badger said she has been an advocate for 10 of her 29 years. She is executive coordinator of the Children's Hospital Advisory Network for Guidance and Empowerment, which helps youths advocate for themselves in and out of the hospital, and a founder of Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network, which helps adolescents with disabilities navigate the challenges of education, employment and independence.

Mr. Kellem, of Ross, is a 2005 graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. After joining the Pirates ticket office, he became the club's manager of diversity initiatives and spearheads an annual ballpark event showcasing the disability community. He's also a founder of Unbreakable Drive, a disability-awareness group.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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