Institute on Disabilities at Temple University Launches Website for Visionary Voices Project

March 2012

PHOTO: A young Laurie Scoggins with her late motherThe Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, College of Education, will launch its groundbreaking website for its Visionary Voices | Leaders Lessons Legacy project on March 13, 2012 with a celebration at the Independence Visitor's Center's Liberty View Ballroom, 6th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Visionary Voices | Leaders Lessons Legacy brings together interviews with leaders in Pennsylvania's Intellectual Disability Movement with a collection of historically significant papers and documents. Contributors, participants, staff, family and friends will gather to have a first look at this enlightening site which will feature in depth interviews with individuals who helped forward the disability rights movement—akin to the civil rights movement of 1960s—much of which started in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has played an important and historically significant role in the creation of public policy (both through legislation and litigation) that has changed the way people with intellectual disabilities live in the community. From the right to special education, to the closing of institutions and the movement toward self-determination, Pennsylvanians with disabilities, their family members, and advocates have paved the way for national policies that have led to widespread reform.

Interviews on the site represent a wide cross section of Pennsylvanians who made a difference. For example, Bill Baldini was a young reporter for Philadelphia's NBC10 when he filed an extraordinary five-part series called "Suffer the Little Children" about the abhorrent conditions at Pennhurst State School. The series, which aired in 1968, caused an overwhelming public response was one of the first steps leading to the eventual closure of Pennhurst.

Equally compelling is the story of Mrs. Eleanor Elkin who, as a young mother, fought to keep her son Richard out of an institution. Richard had been adopted; once his disability was recognized, the state wanted to remove him from the Elkin family home and place him in institutional care. This experience radicalized Mrs. Elkin; though it was far from the life she had envisioned, Mrs. Elkin became a respected local and national advocate, leading the National ARC at a time of widespread reform and systemic change. Mrs. Elkin, who at the age of 95 is considered to be the "Grande Dame" of the Pennsylvania's Intellectual Disability Movement, reflects on a lifetime spent advocating for her son and for others with Intellectual Disabilities.

The one-time first lady of Pennsylvania, Ginny Thornberg, shares her experiences, both in the political arena and as the parent of a child with a disability. Mrs. Thornberg recalls her visit to the Polk State Center (State Institution for Feeble-minded of Western Pennsylvania). Appalled by the evidence of abuse and neglect at Polk, Mrs. Thornburgh was particularly saddened by the Center's cemetery, where as many as 1400 residents were buried without any markers. Mrs. Thornburg believed that those individuals, invisible in life, deserve to be recognized in death. As a result of her advocacy, and by the end of her time as first lady of Pennsylvania, every individual buried at Polk had a grave marker.

Pam Abbott's story is similar to that of many siblings of people with intellectual disabilities. She and her older sister Laurie, who has an Intellectual Disability, were only 15 months apart in age, and virtually inseparable. During her interview, Pam tells a painful story of witnessing neighborhood children tormenting her sister, throwing stones, rendering her unconscious. After this incident, Pam and Laurie's mother feared that she could not keep her child safe in the community. Their parents made the painful decision to move Laurie into an institution, forever altering the dynamics of the family.

Some forty years have passed since the Abbott family made that fateful decision and much has changed. The tireless efforts of families – often mothers, some who resorted to marching on Harrisburg pulling their children in red wagons – of political leaders, of professionals and of individuals with intellectual disabilities, have resulted significant policy change requiring supports and services, inclusive classrooms, and accessible communities.

As with any movement, it is imperative that the current generation of people with disabilities, family members, policy makers, scholars and other professionals, understand the circumstances of past generations and how much effort was required to establish parity for people with disabilities. With economic downturns and the ever-changing political climate, that knowledge may help stem a reversal of progress now being felt in Pennsylvania. That reversal is best illustrated by a sad statistic—since January of 2011, fourteen Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities have been institutionalized, exceeding the total number of people institutionalized during the previous eight years.

The Visionary Voices project and website makes vital the stories of the past. It makes relevant the experiences, the struggles and the achievements of brave Pennsylvanians and it strives to inform, inspire and reignite the passion of this, and future, generations about the importance of freedom for every American.

For More Information
The Visionary Voices Website Launch Event is open to the public but reservations are required. For more information go to:

Media Contacts:
Karin Annerhed-Harris | Vision for Equality

Lisa Sonneborn
Project Coordinator | Visionary Voices
Tel. 215-204-9542
Cel. 215-284-4045

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Institute on Disabilities at Temple University
University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service